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Dustin Putman

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower  (2012)
3 Stars
Directed by Stephen Chbosky.
Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Erin Wilhelmi, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Melanie Lynskey, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Reece Thompson, Zane Holtz, Adam Hagenbuch, Nicholas Braun, Julia Garner, Tom Savini.
2012 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material, drug use, and sexual content including references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 26, 2012.
There is something to be said about a talented author given the chance to adapt his own novel into a feature film, but, then, there's plenty to also be said about "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a tender rites-of-passage drama that proudly wears its aching heart on its sleeve for all to see. Director Stephen Chbosky (screenwriter of 2005's "Rent") knows these characters intimately—that comes through just from the way he writes them with such specificity and care, his greatest aversion being to let any of them fall into two-dimensional disrepair. Although Chbosky is inspired by the works of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, his intentions go beyond these filmmakers' classic 1980s fare as he dares to explore not only the wonders and pain of adolescence, but also the beautifully fleeting process of life itself. For a picture that may cover one heavy topic too many—bullies, homosexuality, suicide, depression, physical abuse, a tragic car accident from the protagonist's childhood, and much more—take note of the authenticity with which he treats this serious subject matter. What could have been a pile-up of bad soap opera theatrics is rendered organic and especially poignant, symbolic of the be-all, end-all importance that some teenagers place on everything they go through. When the out-and-proud but far from happy-go-lucky Patrick (Ezra Miller) comments that his life is "like an Afterschool Special," he says it with both a laugh and an air of resignation. For anybody who's been through their middle and high school years, it will be readily apparent what he means.

The main character of the piece—in some ways a stand-in for Chbosky himself—is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy kid and a gifted writer just getting over some rough times and a brief stay in the hospital as he enters his freshman year in high school. Between mourning the 1,385 days he has left before graduation and trying to evade getting pushed into his locker, Charlie makes a rare friend in his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who shares his love of reading and start giving him books beyond what is on the curriculum. Just as Charlie is feeling particularly crummy about himself—he notes that if his only friend is a teacher, he's in big trouble—salvation appears to him in the form of seniors Patrick and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), outsiders themselves who have managed to carve out a special niche and a circle of tight friendships between themselves and the rest of their "island of misfit toys." Patrick and Sam take to the introspective, quiet Charlie right away, and he to them, for the first time elated to feel like he truly belongs somewhere. Navigating the ins and outs of teenagerdom and the prickly thorns that can go along with it—i.e., Charlie's love for Sam that goes deeper than friends; a brief falling-out when he makes an uncouth mistake during a game of "Truth or Dare"—will ultimately serve to help Charlie on his path toward growing up, if only he can finally let go of a past that keeps coming back to haunt him.

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" may not replicate everyone's high school experience—I, for one, adamantly disagreed with Charlie near the beginning when he opined that it was even worse than middle school, because nothing is as bad as that hellish three-year period—but what viewers will see eye-to-eye with are the emotions that go along with being no longer a child and not yet an adult. It is a time when one starts to hopefully think toward their future while still holding on to the belief that anything is possible. When Charlie happens upon Patrick, who doesn't let the near-incessant name-calling from his peers get in the way of the good person he knows he is, and Sam, taking positive steps to turn her wayward former years around, it is both a strike of good luck and destiny. For the first time in a long time, Charlie recognizes that people not only see and notice him, but like him. This acceptance is something we all strive for, even when we are long out of school and in the real world, and it is an indescribable delight to get to watch an instantly sympathetic person such as Charlie receive the respect and love he's been longing for. Driving through the nighttime streets and tunnels of their Pittsburgh hometown, Charlie, Sam and Patrick further bond as David Bowie's "Heroes" comes on the radio. They do not recognize it and, this story being unobtrusively set in 1991, they can't look it up on the Internet, but in this moment they are forever bonded. As Bowie's transcendent voice sings on and Sam stands with her arms outstretched in the back of the truck, Charlie remarks, "I feel infinite." No matter what is going on in their lives, at this special place and point in their existences, nothing can touch them.

Moving away from conventions of the plot-driven variety, writer-director Chbosky's sensibilities lie in the immediacy of living, each second gone in a blink, never to be gotten back. Charlie hopelessly loves Sam, and she's come right out and told him just as much, but he doesn't believe her kind of love is the same as his. He keeps quiet, for a time going out with the opinionated Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) because he's not brave enough to turn her down, and then does something so insensitive that it threatens the very friendships that mean the most to him. It's the end of the world—isn't everything at fourteen or fifteen?—but this, too, shall pass if Charlie can only look at the bigger picture. In a film where nearly every flourish is cause for celebration, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" excels and transcends by recognizing that the non-romantic bonds a person has in youth are often the ones that last and mean the most to us. Patrick, Sam, Charlie and the rest of their clan are fascinating people with more on their mind than the average on-screen teens; they take their love of music seriously (Sam's favorite song is The Cocteau Twins' "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops," while mix tapes are forever being made and passed around to everyone), are bonded by similar tastes, and their extracurricular activities, from parties to Secret Santa gift exchanges to SAT tutoring (Charlie helps Sam when her initial scores aren't good enough for Penn State) to putting on live performances in front of midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," round them out as free-thinking, multilayered individuals. These aren't just people in a movie. They're people many audience members will wish they knew.

Logan Lerman (2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief") leads an exceptional ensemble cast, certainly above-average for the genre, as the introverted Charlie, coming out of his shell little by little. Lerman's narration, written as letters to no friend in particular—this is an assignment he was given by one of his doctors to purge his feelings—brings an invaluable thoughtfulness to the proceedings. Lerman is so very good, though, that he hardly needs it, portraying a young man whose emotions run deep and whose complex sense of self, at least for a time, depends on how others see him. As Sam, Emma Watson (2011's "My Week with Marilyn") is simply luminous, doing away with her British accent and making her own an American role that is nothing like her brainy Hogwarts character. If there is a minor leap that must be made, it is her relationship with an unsupportive college guy named Craig (Reece Thompson). At least she comes to recognize her poor decision. "Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we're nothing?" Sam asks Charlie. "We accept the love we think we deserve," he replies, repeating a wise bit of advice he heard from his English teacher.

As for Ezra Miller, so indelibly frightening as a sociopathic son in 2011's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," his greatest achievement is in essaying someone who is worth everyone's love. Without trying to be, Patrick could prove to be a great role model for gay teens, or, really, anyone. He is not defined by his sexuality and is comfortable enough to not be bothered when classmates call him "nothing." Still, he hurts as much as anyone, and for an understandable reason: the guy he loves, Varsity football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), is in the closet, fearful of his social status and especially the wrath of his father. All supporting work is sterling—only Kate Walsh (2010's "Legion") and Dylan McDermott (2012's "The Campaign") are arguably underused as Charlie's parents—with standouts including Nina Dobrev (2011's "The Roommate"), depicting a positive example of a sibling relationship as Charlie's caring sister Candace; Mae Whitman (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") as Mary Elizabeth, sadly clueless to Charlie's honest affections for another; Paul Rudd (2012's "Wanderlust") as Mr. Anderson, the best teacher Charlie has ever had; and Melanie Lynskey (2012's "Hello I Must Be Going") and Joan Cusack (2009's "My Sister's Keeper"), making lasting impressions with only a few minutes of screen time each as Charlie's Aunt Helen and Dr. Burton, respectively.

A year-in-the-life snapshot one doesn't want to see end, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is a smart movie, passionately made, that will speak to teenagers and adults equally, and on different planes. For those around the same ages as the leads, they will take comfort in not being talked down to and recognize their own joys and hardships in the people looking back at them. For older viewers, there is something more profound to be had at looking back at this time in hindsight, understanding how quickly the time goes and wishing that we knew then what we do now. On the last day of school, Charlie joins in with his best buddies in their elation at having graduated. He's genuinely happy for them, but he also knows what this means since he's a freshman and they are all seniors. Maybe it will be a good thing to force himself out of his comfort zone and meet new people next year. One thing is for sure: they won't be able to take the place of Patrick and Sam and Mary Elizabeth and the sweet-natured, NYU-bound Alice (Erin Wilhelmi). Chbosky leaves Charlie's future, as well as his friendships, open-ended, because that's how it must be. Only time will tell how things work themselves out, and, as he says at the end, "pretty soon their memories will become old pictures in a photo album, and their stories will be passed down to their own children." With its final graceful notes, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" has captured a deserved place for itself as one of the truest coming-of-age films in recent memory.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman