‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’: Don’t be shy

September 21, 2012


As you get older, it’s easy to forget that age when every moment of life seemed fraught with all possible feelings at the most dramatic levels. Life and death seemed to hang in the balance with each step you took, each encounter you had, each moment you spent, each choice you made.

But then, that’s what high school is all about.

Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which he adapted from his young-adult novel, gets it right in too many ways to ignore. Yes, if you’re an adult – or, perhaps, even a college student – it’s easy to dismiss this early-90s tale as just so much emo venting by someone who is too sensitive to live. But that’s ignoring the film’s obvious virtues.

Start with its star Logan Lerman, whose best performances have been in little-seen TV series like “Jack and Bobby” and lesser-seen films like “My One and Only,” in which he played a young George Hamilton. Continue to his costars, particularly Emma Watson and Ezra Miller – not to mention Mae Whitman and Johnny Simmons. Finish up with Chbosky’s own handling of the material, as both a writer and a director.

What you end up with is a touching and consistently witty story about a fateful year of high school for young Charlie (Lerman), entering 10th grade with no friends in sight. He’s had problems with depression (triggered by a friend’s suicide) and has a dark secret he won’t even admit to himself. But he’s vowed to find a way to launch himself in high school, even if he’s not sure how.

Luckily, he is befriended by a pair of seniors, Patrick (Miller) and Sam (Watson), who refer to their small clique as “the island of misfit toys” and welcome the shy but funny Charlie into their group. They treat him like the younger sibling they never had, one who is supportive, worshipful and game for just about anything.

The storylines, such as they are, never stray too far from the genre: the girl with a slutty reputation from a crazy freshman year, the closeted gay student in love with an even-more-closeted star athlete – and, of course, Charlie and his crush on Sam, who always seems to fall for guys who treat her badly.

The emotional journey of the film feels predictable, and yet Chbosky makes the feelings seem fresh, even raw at times. The coming-of-age story can be clichéd, but Chbosky stays true to his source and never overplays the material or talks down to the audience.

Lerman is likably bright, a kid whose problems you can feel for and whose advances you can cheer. Watson, forever Hermione Granger to some, brings a believable bravura to a girl with diminished self-respect. Miller, a rising star, has wonderful comic timing but a seriousness that can cut through the jokes.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is not just for teens, though it will engage and perhaps move them. The feelings this film evokes are bound to strike a chord with anyone who remembers the emotional maelstrom that high school brought on.

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