September 22, 2012

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “The Perks of Being A Wallflower”


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER:  Worth A Ticket – The Serious Side of Being a Teen

We certainly don’t lack for stories about high school in our popular culture.  The CW and ABCFamily networks are almost entirely devoted to that brief, formative period (as is MTV when it does scripted shows like Awkward.).   Glee was a broadcast phenomenon for its first years, and movies from Superbad to Project X to Twilight take place there.  Mostly, though, these tales fit into one of a few subgenres:  they’re comedies about getting laid, or soaps about getting laid, or metaphorical genre fantasies (which are primarily, when you do the translation, about guess what).  The number of serious narratives about growing up and becoming the person you’re going to be as an adult are relatively rare, and mostly on television (where they’re barely successful at best when they initially appear):  My So-Called Life, Friday Night Lights, and Freaks and Geeks are signal examples.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER has that kind of seriousness of purpose.  Very unusually, it’s been both adapted to the screen and directed by its own novelist, Stephen Chbosky (while effectively his first film–he did a no-budget picture more than a decade ago–he doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, having been a creator of the TV series Jericho).  It’s something very few American novelists have ever managed to do–Michael Crichton, Elia Kazan, Norman Mailer, and Thomas McGuane come to mind, and Crichton and Kazan were already successful filmmakers (in Kazan’s case, a legendary one) at the time.  The film has some of the cliches that come with its coming-of-age narrative, but the heartfelt commitment of Chbosky and his actors to the material carries it through.

Our hero, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is, of course, a budding novelist.  The time is the early 90s (in Pittsburgh, which not coincidentally is where and when Chbosky grew up), so pre-Internet, and Charlie is telling his story in the form of letters to a recipient who is never identified or described.  This is an awkward gimmick (the entire novel was written in epistolary form), but after the first few minutes, it’s just the excuse for Charlie’s occasional voice-over narration.  As we gradually learn in the course of the story, Charlie has had an extremely dysfunctional and troubled youth–for one thing, his best friend recently committed suicide–and after some time in a mental institution, he’s about to begin high school.  That’s not exactly the best place for a fragile young person, and Charlie is mostly ignored if not ostracized, making him the “wallflower” of the title.

Charlie does have the support of a sympathetic English teacher (Paul Rudd), but his big breakthrough is when he forces himself to talk to one of the other campus oddballs–Patrick (Ezra Miller), who makes no attempt to hide his homosexuality.  Patrick introduces Charlie to his stepsister, aka The Girl Who Will Change Charlie’s Life, Sam (Emma Watson), as well as Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), and others on what Sam calls their island of misfit toys.  They’re all seniors, but they take Charlie in, and for the first time, Charlie belongs.  Before long, he’s participating in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, taking a modicum of recreational drugs, and even dating–although naturally not with his Magic Pixie Dream Girl, Sam.  This leads, eventually, to big trouble, and Charlie will have to go through a long, dark tunnel before he gets out the other end.

It would be easy to poke fun at Wallflower, with its set-pieces like Sam standing triumphantly in the back of a pick-up truck as it rushes through a symbolic local tunnel, David Bowie’s “We Could Be Heroes” thundering around the trio, and Charlie learning about the world by reading such on-the-nose classics as “Catcher In the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as what turns out to be the big secret he’s suppressed.  But it’s a thoroughly uncynical movie, one that believes in its characters and their journey with such an open heart that you have to go along with it.  The cast, too, is utterly devoted to their characters.  Indeed, they’re all virtually unrecognizable from their previous incarnations.  Lerman doesn’t even appear to be the Percy Jackson of Percy Jackson & the Olympians:  The Lightning Thief, and Miller is as likable and funny here as he was convincingly terrifying in We Need To Talk About Kevin.  Watson, the most celebrated member of the cast, maintains a very creditable American accent, and expands on the sensuality and bright-eyed sorrow that surfaced a bit in her Deathly Hallows (Part 1) work.  There’s also a very strong supporting cast of adults, including Paul Rudd as the English teacher, Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s parents, and Melanie Lynskey as his aunt.

Chbosky also made the excellent decision to have Andrew Dunn as his cinematographer:  Dunn filmed Crazy Stupid Love, and he knows how to shoot comedy without overlighting, maintaining focus on the characters and emotions.  The production design by Inbal Weinberg doesn’t push the 1990s setting to the point of nostalgia-fest, and there are evocative period songs on the soundtrack.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t have much to say, in the end, that we haven’t heard before:  it’s better to be sensitive and decent than rotten and selfish, high school is tough, friends can help you get through the worst, and you’ll never forget your first love.  When done well, though, it’s a story that bears repeating, and Perks does a very solid job of taking us to the other end of that tunnel.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."