The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the most sensitive movies ever made about teenagers. At a time in American movies where teens are vapid aliens who speak/text in too-cool poseur dialogue de rigueur, Hollywood has reached its nadir in depicting the hearts and minds of young people—that is, they rarely have either.
By contrast, here is a little movie of enormous delicacy and truth, giving us young people and their issues—the amplified anxieties, first loves, depressions and exaltations—with great tenderness. It features three perfect performances young stars obviously inspired by the too-rare challenge of playing recognizable human beings. Adapted and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the popular novel of the same name, the film does so many things right it’s hard to know where to begin.
Set in 1991 (thankfully no cell phones or iPads) Pittsburgh over one difficult school year, painfully withdrawn Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an incoming freshman on the margins, reeling inside from his own mental illness, his best friend’s recent suicide and some past traumas that haven’t quite bubbled up to the surface. He’s the smartest kid in his English lit class, and though he never raises his hand with the answers, his instructor (Paul Rudd) takes a liking to him and before long they are sharing copies of Salinger, Kerouac and Fitzgerald.
Even though he has a supportive father (Dylan McDermott), he develops a surrogate family in the form of two seniors who will change his life—gay extrovert and class clown Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Patrick’s step-sister Sam (Emma Watson), a demure beauty who pines after college guys but feels most alive when careening through the Fort Pitt tunnel to her favorite song in the back of their pick-up, upright with the wind in her hair. She’s a sexually liberated free spirit, and it’s at this precise moment that Charlie falls deeply (so do we). Like all tortured movie beauties, Sam is drawn to men who treat her badly, blind to the one right in front of her.
The siblings, self-described “misfit toys,” take Patrick under their wings and introduce him to their offbeat collection of friends, parties, pot brownies and The Rocky Horror Show, starring Patrick as Frank N. Furter, flamboyant onstage while behind the scenes engaging in a clandestine love affair with the campus jock.
Navigating the treachery of high school is easier said than done, but as a distraction from his past and from Sam, Charlie eventually has a bloodless affair with a flighty, controlling friend. Just when he seems to regain his footing, Patrick and Sam seem to need him the most.
There’s a disorganization to some of the storytelling, including the blunt, final reel reveal of a childhood episode that creates a tonal shift and propels Charlie into darker territory, and Joan Cusack turns up as a sympathetic doctor who helps him deal and heal.
Watson, fresh from the Harry Potter franchise, is stunning in the recognizable role of a young lady looking for love in the wrong (college) places but, in a doozy of a scene, empathetic enough to give Charlie his first kiss, “from someone who loves him.” With her signature locks shorn and a newfound maturity, the actress really comes into her own here. And Miller, Tilda Swinton’s psychotic son in Lynne Ramsay’s very good argument for matricide, We Need to Talk About Kevin, uses an enjoyable over-the-top mask for the pathos of his thwarted secret love.
But the film belongs to Lerman, who does a magnificent job of capturing Charlie’s utter fragility, negotiating his coming of age with complete vulnerability. His work here is as good as any teen has been in a movie, period, as far back we you’d care to look. Impressive with Renee Zellweger in My One and Only, he was wasted in both big budget spectacles Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Three Musketeers. His precision with emotion is impressive. Unlike most actors his age, he isn’t about showboating—he goes inward, taking us along. It’s very special.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the year’s most compassionate movies.