I’m actually jealous of sensitive 16 year olds who get to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Of course, growing up, I had John Hughes movies, which were amazing and also elevated my fellow gym class rejects to hero status. But those films were a bit broad and comedic. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is like a super emo version of a John Hughes film, with characters slightly more rooted in a recognizable reality. (The time frame is right, though: The film is set in 1991).
Directed by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the novel of the same name, Perks tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman in high school who recently had some unspecified mental health issues (those are fleshed out a bit, later in the film). He feels he’s doomed to a life on the outskirts of school life—forever an observer, never a participant—until he meets the cheerful, irreverent Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior who’s surprisingly comfortable in his own skin, considering that he’s both gay and dating a closeted football star. Patrick introduces Charlie to his friends, all smart, a little weird, and into what we now called “indie” but used to call “New Wave” music like The Smiths and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about that heady experience of finding your people, finding a world where you not only fit in, but might actually be a star.
Of course, there’s a girl, Patrick’s stepsister, the beautiful Sam (Emma Watson). (Actually, “the beautiful” could be used to describe all three leads, which takes away a bit of the reality—a cutie like Charlie could find female attention no matter how weird or damaged he seemed.) Charlie falls in love with her, but really he’s in love with both of them—these people who finally seem to see the real him.
There’s a crucial scene in a car that didn’t ring true to me: David Bowie’s “Heroes” comes on the radio and Sam has never heard it before (really?). Then she stands up in the car—manic pixie dream girl alert!—and lets the wind blow through her hair.
“I feel infinite,” Charlie says, basking in this moment with his friends.
I scribbled that line down in my notepad. It seemed a little self-conscious, a little twee, even for this dreamy, precocious boy who gets additional book recommendations from his kindly English teacher (Paul Rudd). Perhaps that’s one of the drawbacks of letting the writer direct his own book. He doesn’t know when to edit.
On the other hand, there are so many advantages. The film treats the characters with such love and sensitivity, we come to care about them deeply. Like last year’s excellent Like Crazy, there’s an intimacy to the film, a sense of longing and nostalgia that is quite evocative.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower certainly makes the case for writers to direct their own novels. But something tells me not many are as talented as Stephen Chbosky, who has now given us a both a coming-of-age novel and film for the ages.