Sometimes an inexperienced filmmaker can use a helping hand from his cast. That’s exactly what Stephen Chbosky got from Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson in the adaptation of his popular young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Back in the director’s chair for only the second time, the filmmaker, like his main character, is a little unsteady on his feet. But thanks to his stars, the film—like the book—is a smartly observed study of a troubled teen’s first year in high school.
Chbosky has kept much of his novel’s central narrative device—letters written by a depressed freshman named Charlie (Lerman) to an anonymous sympathetic someone—while finding ways to flesh out the teenager’s world. Although some things get lost in translation, there are compensations: The dialogue is filled with nifty literary references, a clever nod to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is great fun and the emotional roller coaster rings true.
Set in a Pittsburgh suburb in 1991, the film drops us into Charlie’s fraught first days, which solidify fears that in high school he will be friendless. He’s very smart and sensitive, so he has that going against him. His best friend, Michael, committed suicide the year before. His second best friend, Susan (Julia Garner), who was Michael’s girlfriend, has joined the “in” crowd, which doesn’t include Charlie.
His luck changes when he braves a football game alone and bumps into Patrick (Miller), a brazenly eccentric senior. That brings an introduction to Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson in her best post-Harry Potter turn yet), and a life beyond loser-dom emerges.
From there, the film digs into the messy business of figuring out who you are. There are side issues of sexuality—straight and gay—and friendship. But the engine driving the film is Charlie’s personal history. Chbosky takes teases out that particular trauma.
The journey there would probably have proved too dreary if not for Patrick and Sam. While Charlie is the “wallflower,” more an observer than a partaker of life, Patrick and Sam throw themselves into every experience. Now they are dragging Charlie along for the ride.
That struggle between restraint and freedom is nicely mirrored by the look of the film (Crazy, Stupid, Love cinematographer Andrew Dunn)—tight shots when things grow intimate, pulling back whenever the kids emotionally retreat, in the middle of the chaos of the parties and keeping a distance from the wreckage left behind.
Chbosky trusts his audience to understand the subtext of moments without throwing in unnecessary explanations. That requires a nuanced level of acting, and the core cast is very adept at it.
Lerman gives Charlie the look of a young colt still trying to get his legs, the awkwardness never overplayed. Watson seems to relish a chance to play a teenager whose only powers are to be smart, sensitive and crush-worthy—she makes sure Sam hits all those notes. But it is Miller, so chilling opposite Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, who gives the minutiae that consume teen conversations some much-appreciated jolts of electricity. He gets better with every role.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower