Unlike so many other movies set in high school, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not about someone trying to get laid, or outcasts finding acceptance, or nerds looking for a party, or student competitors hoping to win against all odds.
It’s about someone just hoping to fit in and make friends.
Yes, I know that sounds almost simplistic — a high school movie about a guy who makes friends? That’s it? — and maybe it is, but it’s in the sweet and sensitive way that Wallflower tells its story that’s impressive.
On his first day of freshman year, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is already counting the days until graduation. The kid’s so uncomfortable in his own skin and scared that he stays off to the side where no one will see him, thinking (and accepting) that no one really wants him around.
But it’s not just a lack of self-confidence that has Charlie down on himself: He’s spent the last few months dealing with his depression over the death of his beloved aunt and the suicide of a close friend. The only person he shares his emotions with is an unnamed “friend” he writes letters to.
Charlie’s outlook on life changes when he connects with his English teacher (Paul Rudd, in a nice change of pace), who introduces Charlie to all the great books about lonely, misunderstood teens (Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, etc.), and then, when he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Sensing a kindred spirit, these two seniors accept Charlie as is, and welcome him into their “Island of Misfit Toys.” It’s through these two that Charlie is able to experience his first real relationships, and to finally feel like a part of something.
The film is nicely observed and well acted, and it has enough confidence in itself not to be something it’s not. There’s sex, drugs, and Rocky Horror, but none of that is romanticized; it’s all portrayed as the awkward mess it can be when you’re in high school.
Chbosky, who adapted the film from his own book (which I own but have never read), seems to have a real ear for teenagers: Yes, these kids are smart, but they aren’t precocious kids who speak like young adults. They have real problems and legit concerns, which they express in age-appropriate fashion, and when things don’t go their way, there are actual consequences. How refreshing.
(That they wouldn’t be able to identify David Bowie’s “Heroes” is a bit puzzling and inconsistent, but the film does take place in the days before the internet and Shazam.)
Acting across the board is very good: Miller portrays Patrick as a charismatic pied piper whose sexuality is a nonissue to everyone — except the closeted football player he’s dating. This is a character whose at-times outsized personality could have been grating, but Miller resists all the temptations of making Patrick a caricature. He’s not perfect, and he accepts his friends warmly partly because they don’t expect him to be.
Likewise, Watson’s Sam is not a girl, not yet a woman. She’s just developing her own confidence, and is not yet in full control of the effect she has on those around her. It’s a nice departure from Hermoine Granger, and a strong indication that Watson has a bright future beyond Hogwarts.
And Lerman effectively captures the contradictorily passive nature of someone who doesn’t want to be alone but doesn’t want to infringe on other people either. He’s more content to keep his feelings to himself than he is to take the risk of saying something that may alienate someone close to him, and ruin the relationship.
For so long, Charlie’s been an observer on the sidelines. In Wallflower, he learns that real friends can heal you, they accept you for who you are, and they want you to speak up. To participate. When you have friends, the possibilities are infinite.
The movie may be a little too long, and its third-act revelation kills a bit of the momentum, but when it sticks to the dynamics of friendship among the outcasts, Wallflower becomes the kind of earnest, authentic movie I wish there were more of.
Even better, it’s the kind of movie its characters would probably approve of. And that might be the best compliment of all.
I’m giving The Perks of Being a Wallflower a B+.
What’s your favorite movie about high school? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.