Do we need another high school story, either the nostalgic kind celebrating the warm fuzzies of our teenage years, or the cynical kind about the horrors of cliques and bullying? Stephen Chbosky’s recollections, based on his acclaimed novel, make for a more mature remembrance of these years and a surprisingly engrossing drama, mostly free of cliché and melodrama.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) dir. Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrev, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Paul Rudd
By Alan Bacchus
Charlie (Lerman) is a freshman in high school, scared out of his wits about the onslaught of the expected hazing, teasing and bullying that comes with being the lowest rung on the social ladder. He’s a smart kid, who instantly forms a bond with his literate English professor (Rudd). It takes only a few weeks before he’s ingratiated by Patrick (Miller), the gay misfit senior who constantly expresses his superiority over the rituals, as well as the quirky but luminous Sam (Watson), also a senior.
The attraction to Sam is palpable, but as a senior and someone with sexual experience, no matter how friendly she may be, she’s an enigma. Early on, we’re aware of this very familiar and overplayed scenario, and though very little happens that we haven’t seen in other films before, Chbosky’s fine actors and respect for his memories create a kind of mature integrity.
Chbosky plays all situations as real, with humour taking a backseat to realism. Comedy emerges organically from the natural absurdities of high school and adolescent life. Patrick hosts most of the comedy in the early stages, his direct approach at the rampant stereotypes that surround him are amusing.
As Sam and Charlie bond over typically outcast influences, such as The Smiths and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, again the film threatens to fall into the cinematic formula. But the quiet romance, as performed by the strong duo of Emma Watson and Logan Lerman, is so expressive and endearing, we can’t help but fall under Chbosky’s nostalgic spell.
Of course, Charlie's journey goes through ups and downs, including his first kiss, getting high, losing his virginity and break-ups, beatings and other heartbreaks, events all organically infused into the story. What falters is the backstory of Charlie’s flashbacks to some traumatic event as a child, which don’t quite fuse with the present story, part of an extended denouement which goes on a scene or two too long.
While there’s no explicit date telling us when the film takes place, the presence of mixtapes and mullets give us an indication about the approximate era. But it isn’t until Young MC is played on the stereo that we identify it as 1990. However, the film really isn’t about a specific period of time. Chbosky’s pop culture reference points are those that will always be claimed by the outcasts of high school - the brooding angst of The Smiths, the in-your-face garishness of Rocky Horror and the earthly melancholy of David Bowie’s Heroes all feature prominently.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a warm embrace of high school life from the unfettered reflections of an adult.