The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Any movie, in particular a teen movie, that has a tagline as pretentious as “We are infinite” is asking for a bruising. But it becomes difficult to malign one that also tackles its central theme as sensitively as this one does, and which grants us a trio of lead performances that are so accomplished.
Being wholly unfamiliar with Stephen Chobsky’s cult novel (which he adapts and directs), I can nevertheless see why – if the film is indicative – it garnered a following. It ticks all the requisite boxes of teen dysfunction and alienation while giving its main protagonist a very real and aberrant issue to deal with. It’s the latter that really separates this from the likes of a John Hughes picture, where the average teen’s inflated sense of their own torments lacks perspective.
Which is not to say that much of Chobsky’s film isn’t informed by the same full-blown romanticising of the coming-of-age experience as Hughes’ films (it’s setting too, in the early ‘90s, lends it a certain kinship to those ‘80s movies). I suspect the average, unremarkable teenager will look at the world and experiences that Logan Lerman’s Charlie is invited to partake of and think “if only”.
It isn’t long before he’s experiencing magical musical, pharmaceutical and romantic discoveries; his initial social reticence proves no barrier to this. And his new-found friends are worryingly enlightened and sensitive to the point where you’re reminded that many of Hughes’ films had actors well into their 20s playing teens (here, the performers are more age-appropriate). One wonders what he will have left to learn and discover when he eventually goes to university, as he has seen it all and done it all. He’ll just have to become a writer and spend the rest of his days writing about being a writer.
One might suggest it’s rather manipulative to hinge the film’s twist revelation on the murky past experience of Charlie, although this sort of thing isn’t exactly new. Redford’s Ordinary People comes to mind, albeit the problems of the Timothy Hutton character there were interrogated directly. Here, Chobsky could almost have gotten away with never making the reveal and just allowing Charlie to remain somewhat shy and inscrutable.
There are problems with some of the implications of the narrative choices; Charlie’s blackouts and consequent violence take on a heroic function at one point, and serve to mend the bridges he had managed to burn with his friends. It also seems unlikely that, however enraged, diminutive Charlie could inflict punishment on a room full of jocks. Unless he was channelling Percy Jackson. Still, if only the average weedy geek could use extreme violence to protect the oppressed and make friends; wouldn’t that be a great message to send youngsters?
I’ll admit that I was uncertain when the film was set at first (I must have glazed over if there was any cue card or introductory voiceover explaining the period). While the presence of The Smiths (snorts derisively) and cassette tapes were fairly evidential, this was compounded by the inexplicable cluelessness of the main characters not just in being unable to identify Heroes but in not knowing that David Bowie was singing it. I mean, really.
Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller are all laudable. If Lerman has the Andrew McCarthy role, Miller has Judd Nelson one (I suppose Watson is more the Demi Moore in St Elmo’s Fire type, he says, struggling for further ‘80s parallels). He and Watson play stepsiblings who are so flamboyantly with-it they regularly perform in Rocky Horror retinues. You can see that within the next year or so Miller will be one of the most in-demand young actors around. He has charisma coming out the wazoo and is as warm and hyperbolic here as he was cold and icily sinister in Kevin.
The supporting turns are all appealingly unshowy. Paul Rudd makes a believable teacher, of the unbelievably “best and most understanding ever” variety. Effects wizard Tom Savini is amusingly cast as a woodwork teacher.
Chobsky allows the story to lead for the most part, and wisely so; it is “big” enough already, without any attention-grabbing technical flourishes (a good example is the Heroes scene, depicting the giddy heights of nostalgic teen dream reminiscence).
I’m sure The Perks of Being a Wallflower will take its place as a perennial teen classic but, in its own way, it is as much of a fantasy version of teen angst as The Breakfast Club (maybe this is why none of these kids sit around watching Pretty in Pink – more likely they’re all much too highbrow for that sort of thing); indeed, the use of Heroes is a little to redolent of that film’s Don’t You (Forget About Me).