By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published October 24, 2012
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is not a perfect movie. The film adaptation of the 1999 young-adult novel of the same name starts off a bit choppy, and the pacing remains erratic to the end. But its flaws are oddly fitting, because “Perks” never tries to give a gloss to its portrayal of growing up. It’s a story about dysfunction and introversion, its narrative unfolded by a tortured, unstable protagonist. So, its messiness is appropriate, even beautiful.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
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Charlie (Logan Lerman, “The Three Musketeers”) just started high school, and he’s already counting down the days until graduation. His best friend, Mike, shot himself last May — a reveal so matter-of-fact and hushed that it’d be easy to miss completely. But Charlie meets Sam (Emma Watson, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), two eccentric step-siblings who welcome him into their island of misfit toys.
As the director, screenwriter and producer (not to mention the author of the original novel), Steven Chbosky (“Rent”) knows this story inside and out, and the celebrated care he pours into the camerawork — like the effortless blend of Charlie’s memories with the present — makes for a captivating display.
Some of the more peculiar direction choices are mesmerizing. At a post-homecoming party, Sam tells Patrick about how Charlie lost his best friend. She does so in a whisper, but not the kind of stage whisper you usually see in the movies. You have to strain to hear — she breathes the words, her body angled away from the camera.
With an impressively penetrating voice and style for someone so new to filmmaking, Chbosky transforms the rigid epistolary structure of the novel into a story that dances. The tempo might be wobbly, but the script is immaculate, untangling and probing very dark, very complicated issues in a way that’s as genuine as it is elegant.
Also relatively inexperienced are the film’s trifecta of young stars. While Watson is hardly a newcomer, she does an about-face from the character she played for a decade. Sam, an uninhibited and passionate girl trying to shed her turbulent past before college, is no Hermione, and Watson brings a magnetic honesty to her performance, never allowing Sam to slip into a bad-girl cliche.
Miller similarly sheds the skin of his haunting performance as the titular teen sociopath of “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Patrick is the beating heart of “Perks.” On the surface, he’s the class clown, the guy who organizes the senior prank and does impressions of teachers. But like Charlie and Sam, he too harbors intense pain — he’s involved with a closeted football star whose father would kill him if he ever came out. And Miller is wholly mindful of all of Patrick’s intricacies in his approach, dominating some scenes with his infectious comedy and others with a quiet anguish.
But the film’s most indelible images come from Lerman, who has the staggering task of capturing Charlie’s internal struggles without dipping too far into the macabre. We have to believe just how tormented Charlie is for the character to work, and Lerman manages to make that happen without taking the character to a point beyond empathy. The story is told from deep within Charlie’s head, which would feel suffocating if not for the delicacy of Lerman’s touch.
The script zooms in on the specificity of these characters’ anxieties, with enough close-ups to enliven and augment even the minor characters. But “Perks” also doesn’t belong to a certain time or place, painting broad strokes with its more peripheral details.
This is a world in which you pour out your feelings in a mixtape, and who you sit with at lunch can seem like the most important thing in the world. And no matter how distant of a memory teenagedom is for viewers, “Perks” will resonate.