Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has the unique quality of being a film adaptation directed (and written) by the author of the source material. Now, that’s a somewhat misleading statement, because Chbosky — boasting a USC education, a screenwriting credit for Chris Columbus’s Rent, and the practice of having directed The Four Corners of Nowhere — is nothing if not familiar with the world of cinema. But there’s still a personal dimension that shines through here, and, because “personal” is such an intangible essence, it’s one that very easily could’ve been lost had the film been made under the watch of someone new to the material.
Also raising the film’s impact is the knockout casting of the three core characters, starting with Logan Lerman as Charlie, a shy, introverted kid who, at the outset of his freshman year in high school, undergoes much trouble in adapting to the environment. He’s picked on, eats alone at lunch, and only really connects with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson, who’s played nicely by Paul Rudd in a role that has been trimmed slightly from Chbosky’s book. But the basic camaraderie remains — Mr. Anderson, sensing more than a small piece of himself in the young Charlie, routinely offers him classic books to read outside of class, and Charlie, thoroughly without any social temptations that would potentially distance himself from the life of a bookworm, always accepts.
At home, Charlie’s life his curiously imbalanced. His parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) don’t seem quite sure how to deal with his recent history of mental illness, and his sister (Nina Dobrev), much to his own confusion, continues to commit herself to a relationship that bears scars of physical abuse. Combine these situations with an already tumultuous life at school, and it’s almost impossible to locate any foreseeable light in Charlie’s future. Thankfully, that’s where step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) — two fantastically nice seniors discovered by Charlie at a football game one night — come in.
Miller and Watson are as successfully empathetic as Lerman in their respective roles. With the recent back-to-back combination of Another Happy Day and We Need to Talk About Kevin — playing a substance abuser in the former and a violently psychopathic teenager in the latter — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one growing worried about Miller’s penchant for pitch-black gravity, but here, playing the flamboyant and endearingly obnoxious Patrick, he welcomely drifts into more delicate territory (though the role’s not without functioning drama, too). And while Watson has gained a universal following for her Harry Potter contributions, I must admit that I haven’t quite caught on to her — until now. She builds Sam with such a lovable tenderness (and divinely trimmed short hair) that I practically wanted to steal her from the gooey-gazed Charlie the entire time.
As a director, Chbosky presents himself as capable and efficient, dedicated to the writing, and only occasionally interested in noticeable formal flourishes. When he does do this, though, it’s far from a distractor — there are two or three major sequences throughout the film that flood us with the images stirring around inside of Charlie’s head (predominantly those involving his beloved Aunt Helen, played by Melanie Lynskey), and as separate as they are from the film’s overall aesthetic, they work extremely well. Through the editorial skill of Mary Jo Markey, J.J. Abrams’s regular editor, these moments in the film land on a serviceable pace, cluttered and frantic but never out of control.
Mostly, though, Chbosky is committed to realizing his long-brewing material — the novel, set in 1991 Pittsburgh, was published in early 1999 — with as little disorder as possible. The book was constructed as a series of letters written by Charlie to an anonymous friend, which, for me, sort of caused it to read a little bit like a checklist of common, relatable high-school experiences. And while the film starts off by introducing the same structural conceit, we basically forget about it soon enough — wisely, it’s only referred to intermittently, and the points that do focus on Charlie’s voice-over proceed naturally, like they’re ripped from a diary that a withdrawn kid like Charlie would probably spend a lot of time on.
The necessity of the performances, too, cannot be understated. This is such a specifically self-doubting role that you can’t make any conclusions regarding Lerman’s overall range as an actor, but he hits every Charlie note with the correct balance of authenticity and hesitation, and the combination of his puppy-dog face and whisper-like voice suit the character perfectly. Add in Miller’s Patrick and Watson’s Sam, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower gives us three characters that are so heartfelt, so full of absolute emotional immediacy, that they nearly keep us on the verge of tears throughout the entire film, no matter how happy or sad the scene at hand may be. That’s a difficult thing to capture, and a magnificent thing to experience.
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