The film of the cult book The Perks of Being a Wallflower is witty, involving and surprisingly life affirming.
It seems an odd way to open a review but some of you won’t like this film one bit. Indeed you might already have concluded as much if you’ve seen it. Its the sort of film that appeals either to people who are going through the things the characters are going through, in other words as Emma Watson gave as one of her reasons for taking a role: “I think the movie can prevent someone from killing themselves.” Or it appeals to those of us who still treasure those special moments that define our younger lives. Oh and anyone who likes action will be rather disappointed to discover the film’s big fight is blacked out and we never see it because the main character doesn’t remember it. OK, now all those people have gone we should be left with those for whom this film means a lot, whether because they identify with it or simply because it is a brilliant film.
Odd thing. When I was looking for cinema times and again when I was drafting this piece, I mistakenly referred to `perils` rather than ` perks` in the title. It could easily have been called `Perils` of course and that would probably make it more predictable. It’s `Perks` because it is a story that celebrates what brings people together not what pulls them apart.
First published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower became a cult read despite author Stephen Chbosky’s rounding up of what might seem to be a million teen angst clichés. Tick them off- The Smiths, family secrets and tragedies, unrequited love, loneliness, drugs etc etc. We’ve seen them all in films of different shades; some funny, some melodramatic, some dull. This film which Stephen Chobsky adapted and directed himself- “This movie was never going to be made without me directing it” – just lets its subjects breathe. If there are moments of melodrama, they are fitting, if there are moments of cinematic exhilaration then they have been earned.
I was lucky enough to see it with a very receptive audience some of whom audibly gasped at a couple of key developments, some of whom were in tears at the end even though the end is actually quite upbeat and optimistic. That always helps (unless it’s a sci-fi audience whooping at every laser beam!) but there is something implicitly human about the film that many other teen led movies- indeed many other movies altogether – just miss. After a summer of superheroes and buildings being blown up and dark characters threatening cities, it is also reassuring to find that a hidden memory returning to haunt a character can be much more powerful.
Set in the early 1990s, the story concerns Charlie, who is starting senior school afresh after an initially unspecified trauma caused him to have to leave his previous educational establishment. Painfully shy and trying to remain anonymous, he is so impressed by senior Patrick’s outrageous behaviour so talks to him and meets Patrick’s half sister Samantha or Sam as she is known. It is the friendship t hat develops with them- and with other so called wallflowers- that is the main plot of the film. As things progress, Charlie starts to fall in love with Sam even though she does not seem interested while the nature of both his and the other’s personal lives begins to emerge.
Some critics have described Chobsky’s staging as amateurish but what comes across most is how honest it is. He eschews the sort of confrontational revelations that make up the average soap opera plot, instead preferring to let things reveal themselves slowly. He also uses voice over in the way it is meant to be used, not to lead us by the hand through the plot but to let us inside the main character’s head a little, though even then we don’t learn everything.
Chobsky has said the cast is perfect for him and indeed it is for the viewer too. Logan Lerman is Charlie giving what must be one of the best performances by a twenty something actor in recent years. The audience I was with were on his side from the start; Lerman giving off vulnerability and hidden darkness in waves. He captures the gauche mistakes someone in Charlie’s situation would make yet he is also capable of conveying so much simply by a slight change of expression. When it comes to the heavier stuff later on, you feel it with him - he is convincing at all time. Funny too - there’s a great scene where Patrick and Sam are dancing away to `Come on Eileen` and Charlie is watching wanting to join in. With a grimace and an awkward moment Lerman moves forward and it is his body language and gradual involvement is just so funny and yet so true,
Emma Watson could not be more different from her best known role; she seems so American and it goes beyond the accent which incidentally she nails. Just the way she carries herself and the way she interprets an awkward role. We’re not sure whether we like Sam until Charlie does in the film’s keynote sequence, more on which later. In some respects you could say Ezra Miller has the easiest role, Patrick being gay, eccentric and flamboyant- a chance to go crazy. Yet there is a hidden side to Patrick too- he and Charlie may seem to have opposite temperaments but are they so different? All three are terrific throughout embodying Chobsky’s characters to a tee.
The scene I mentioned above takes place in a vehicle travelling through an underpass and David Bowie’s `Heroes` is on the tape player. Incidentally none of the three know what the song is which is a genius little note. Anyway, Sam stands up, hands outstretched taking in the air and the atmosphere and that is the moment Charlie realises what he feels about her. The drive through is repeated at the end with a different, equally good, slant. Both scenes are transcendent and what is most surprising is how uplifting and positive the film is without being saccharine.
Perhaps because we want the trio to succeed, the difficulties each encounters in the second half never derail them so you can bracket the film as teen angst if you will but it is much more than that. Chances are you’ll be able to identify with the spirit of events even if the specifics of your own life are different. There’s a revelation near the end that shocks because it is not what you have been expecting and at all but the way it is handled, neither with kid gloves nor with syrupy movie clichés, is stunning. If I’m making the film seem too dark and serious, it is definitely not. There are lots of laughs, lots of moments you’ll be nodding at knowingly, others you’ll be tempted to look away through embarrassment for one or other of the characters.
The soundtrack is gorgeous and it is a film with a typewriter and mix tapes in it. Don’t we all, secretly, miss mix tapes because they represent effort. Now anyone can do their own iPod selection but that is just not the same. Films like this probably wouldn’t work in a present day setting anyway, they rely on naivity and honesty; qualities that technology has rendered unnecessary in young people. Take the `Heroes` thing; now instead of just calling it “the tunnel song” as they do for the rest of the film 2012 Charlie would go home and Google it.
You know what, I may change my mind about this but right now I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is my favourite film of the year.