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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

October 3, 2012
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

What is it that separates a good coming-of-age story from a mediocre one like It’s Kind of a Funny Story? Stephen Chbosky, the original author, screenwriter, and director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower will tell you that it’s a sense of timelessness, and point to the way that Dead Poets Society comes unmoored from its late-1950s setting. But that doesn’t seem to explain his own film.

True, Chbosky does make efforts to generalize the film from his novel’s early-90s setting — at the cost of anchoring it more firmly in the Pittsburgh suburbs of his youth — but I don’t think that’s the real answer. Instead, this movie makes clear that lesser high-schooler stories make the same mistake that most high-schoolers make: they take high school itself far too seriously. The nostalgia here is cut with a sense of how ridiculous these times of our lives really were, and how ridiculous we were while going through them. And when Chbosky directs us to look back, aware of that truth, we find something approaching a real human story and not just another exercise in an all-too-familiar genre.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is newly returned to school on the first day of his freshman year of high school. There are vague references to a breakdown that become clearer as the story plays out, but the upshot is that he’s distanced from what old social ties he’d had, except for his parents (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) and his sister (Nina Dobrev). Effectively, he’s the new kid again. He’s also bookish and introverted and all sorts of other adjectives familiar to those who spend a lot of time watching flickering images projected on the walls of big, dark rooms.

And yet, a stroke of luck: a senior, Patrick (Ezra Miller) is required to take Charlie’s freshman shop class, and that’s the route into a circle of older, popular friends, including Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), and Sam (Emma Watson), on the last of whom Charlie develops an instant crush. And so the year plays out, with Charlie growing both socially, through the influence of his new friends, and mentally, through the influence of his English teacher (Paul Rudd).

Chbosky gets a lot of things exactly as they are, especially from the vantage of someone looking back at a similar school in a similar time. He also gets a lot of things exactly as we want them to be; when the bookish outsiders write stories, things do tend to work out in a certain way. Charlie is not a Mary Sue character, but it’s sort of amazing how many things happen to him and his friends. There’s no particular need, for instance, for his sister’s hanging plotline about an abusive boyfriend. And all the truest, most bittersweet moments could work out without saddling Charlie with such a dramatic backstory. But we know that, despite all of our high-school protests, drama is fun; I can hardly blame Chbosky for folding it in.

As I said, the characters’ reactions to these situations are often ridiculous, but they’re also right. If I’m honest, I look back to no end of stupidity on my own part when I was their age. And what prevents these moments from leading merely to winces is a trio of inspired performances on the parts of Lerman, Watson, and Miller. They nail everything down to the subtleties of facial expressions that communicate at least as much as their lines do. The result of all this careful work on the part of both cast and director is a wry, touching coming-of-age story that manages, in its way, to come off even truer than real life does.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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