Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★1/2
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is one of the most heartfelt, bittersweet and emotionally-taxing movies about high school ever made. Fantastic performances by the three lead actors make familiar characters come alive in a way that transcends the stereotypes that usually populate teen movies. Funny one moment, then heartbreaking the next, “Wallflower” is a universally-relatable tale about growing up, trying to save the ones you love, and trying to save yourself.
Movies based on books are often criticized for deviating from the original story, but in the case of “Wallflower” the writer of the popular teen book of the same name, Stephen Chbosky, also served as screenwriter and director on the film. As a result, the movie version sticks pretty close to the source material, and doesn’t shy away from the depictions of sex, drugs, and violence that made the original book a hit with teens and a scandal to protective parents. “Wallflower” is not a lighthearted glance back at the good ole days. It is a love letter to the kids who are stuck in the mess of “growing up,” and who don’t think it will ever get better.
Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a quiet kid with a love of writing and a past burdened by layers of tragedy. Charlie is nervous about starting high school. He has no friends and it’s clear from that the start that he struggles with depression. Fortunately, he is taken in by a group of misfit seniors that include the class clown Patrick (Ezra Miller), whose romantic entanglements with a closeted football player bring him nothing but grief, and Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), who Charlie falls for immediately. Her academic woes and tendency to date losers inevitably gives Charlie the chance he needs to come to the rescue.
With new friends and an inspiring new English teacher (Paul Rudd), Charlie is happy for the first time in a long time. However, he soon realizes that his friends are just as fragile as he is, and losing their friendship could send him into a downward spiral he may never recover from.
The three lead actors bring tremendous depth to their characters. Lerman’s Charlie is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever mumbled their way through freshman year, but he also harbors a darkness inside himself that he’s afraid to let anyone see. Miller is hilarious and bittersweet as Patrick, who hides his pain and frustration behind jokes and an impish smile. Most impressive of all, however, is Emma Watson, who becomes the free-spirited Sam so completely that the audience is likely to forget all about her former role as Hermoine from the “Harry Potter” movies.
The script is great with laugh-out-loud moments and gasp-inducing shocks coming fast and frequently. However, all of it would be for naught without three young actors capable of making these main characters come alive. Heck, they even manage to look like they could still be in high school even though all three of them are actually in their twenties.
Swapping mixtapes plays a big part in “Wallflower’s” story, and the early ‘90s soundtrack chock full of tunes by David Bowie and The Smiths gives the film a very definite setting, and will certainly bring a nostalgic tear to audience members who grew up at that time. However, the soundtrack doesn’t date the movie like one might expect. Instead, because the characters feel so familiar, the audience is made acutely aware of just how universal the experience of growing up is, regardless of the time period. This is one of the core themes of the movie, as expressed by the film’s tagline, “We are infinite.” Charlie’s journey through adolescence is basically a journey to the realization that we all struggle, and that our troubles are the troubles of anyone who was ever a kid stumbling their way to adulthood.
“Wallflower” tackles a lot of issues that mainstream teen movies shy away from, but just like the lives of its characters, it’s not all gloom and doom. Charlie, Sam, and Patrick laugh, love, and cry, and audiences who see younger versions of themselves in these characters will laugh, love, and cry right along with them.