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The lonely insecure high schooler has been one of the most beloved sub-genres in movies with a very strict set of rules, ones long-established and seemingly unbreakable in identifying characters and the paths they must follow. These were mostly set by the films of John Hughes, movies so iconic in what they presented, bending the formula even the slightest bit would topple them into obscurity. Hence few have tried, though occasionally, one comes along that stripes away expectations and turns the whole thing upside down.
Based on the best-selling young adult book of the same name by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an uncommon story in an all-too common line of films about young love and coming-of-age, a movie so in touch with its subject, it feels almost unfair. Cast to near perfection, it embodies the pangs of the time these characters live in with great respect for them, without sentimentalizing it all, setting up moments that would be played as hokey gags in lesser movies but here are as authentic as a punch to the gut.
THE STORY: Directed by Chbosky, the film follows Charlie Kelmeckis (Logan Lerman), a freshman at high school, a boy suffering from clinical depression since childhood, stemming from the loss and effects of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). At school, he is immediately a target and finds comfort in the shadows, barely keeping it together in his feelings of isolation, though makes a connection with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who recognizes talent in the boy.
He eventually falls under the care of two seniors, Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller), a pair of misfits themselves who are nonetheless pretty popular. He confides in them, learns much about who they are but also who he is as well, and as the group undergoes a number of seismic events that come to define themselves, Charlie most especially battles typical hurdles and the aching love he feels for Sam. But it’s all pressed under the pain of a secret he keeps burrowed just under the skin, one that waits, simmering … consuming.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is unabashedly raw, moments played out with none of the triggers we come to expect, dealing with relationships as a matter of sincerity rather than manipulation. These are characters born from tropes but taken in seriously different directions.
That includes Mr. Anderson, who is just a teacher and nothing more, but does have impact, his supply of books a simple method of participation that Charlie not only clings to, but advances by, though the film is careful not to make any moment on this be about Anderson, something we certainly expect. This extends to the leads as well, with Patrick a gay student who is not ostracized for his lifestyle nor put on a pedestal for it, but rather a character who is tough, wild, and a little lost on his own. He’s well played by Miller, who never mines for our sympathy, even though he is a tortured soul, the class clown hiding great ache within.
There is of course Watson, who is the light in the story, her character a beacon of warmth and beauty who, while under pressures of her own, seems the the most true of all those in Charlie’s life, a young woman touched by his kindness, changed by his devotion. It’s a challenging and deeply personal role that Watson wields with saber-sharp efficiency, clearly with intent to break way from her past.
And lastly, there is Lerman, who finds the right tone from the start, his innocent-looking face, one that makes it very easy to fall for. There is something about what he does with his eyes and the smart choices in keeping silent when the temptation to talk strikes, that make him profoundly effective.
A GREAT MOMENT: There are a number of key moments that truly come to shape the story, including a series of flashbacks to when Charlie was a boy that have huge significance on his life now. These roll out with a kind of surgical precision, and like so much of the story, create one thing only to reveal something else.
But it is a moment during Christmas, when Charlie and Sam take to a bit of small talk in her room alone when things take a shift. It’s a beautiful scene that is one of the more satisfying ever put on film about expressing something so deeply important to another.
Watson is alluring, yes, but more so, her character quietly in pain as she confesses a secret of her own, and then offers to Charlie something so cherished, it shatters everything for them both, even if the ripples take time to have effect. It’s a devastating moment that is simply the best of its kind, John Hughes movies included.
THE TALLY: The Perks of Being a Wallflower might seem like a very specific arthouse genre flick, one with a limited audience, and indeed, there is much about it that certainly feels aimed just for that. However, rewards are plentiful for those who explore on their own, regardless of expectations. Pay attention to what Chbosky does with his own story as he dismantles the tentpoles that have long stood as unbreakable fixtures in teen romantic dramas, giving these young people breathing room like few films before. Quiet and earnest, this is a film about people we might easily recognize even as their paths take on a journey unlike any we’ve seen before, echoed by the ‘tunnel song’ Heroes by David Bowie. It’s what to watch.