The high school coming of age movie is a genre that’s pretty much done to death at this point, while the track record of movies based on young adult novels isn’t such a strong one. But the new movie of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” bucks both trends. Here’s a beautiful, realistic, heartfelt comedy/drama, with a trio of standout performances.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the 1999 novel on which it’s based, ‘Wallflower’ is set in an unnamed time and place, which we soon discover is early-’90s suburban Pittsburgh. The film nails the period detail just right; I was about that age, about that year, and the references of the time all ring true. The soundtrack is pretty great as well.
Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a nerdy, outcast high school freshman who, it’s implied, has in the recent past battled depression and other mental health issues. Eventually, he’s drawn into a group of what used to be called “alternative” kids, who favor such cultural touchstones as self-published ‘zines, New Wave music and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The group includes the flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), with whom Charlie is instantly smitten. Also on hand are Mary-Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) and closeted jock brad (Johnny Simmons.)
The camaraderie of the group is my favorite thing about the film. They just plain feel like a real group of friends, with their own traditions and inside jokes. This is mostly thanks to three great performances: Lerman, nailing the lead role; Watson, making everyone forget Hermione with a tortured, very adult performance- and Ezra Miller, who just about walks away with the movie. Miller, best known as the young mass murderer in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” plays a true original, and one of the best gay teenaged characters ever on film.
The film’s individual strengths are so strong that certain little inconsistencies didn’t bother me all that much, like Lerman’s freshman not looking particularly younger than his senior friends, or being a little too good looking and cool to come across as a socially maladroit dork, or the revelation that his best friend killed himself not long earlier being dropped and then never mentioned again for the rest of the movie.
There’s one thing that did bother me: About ten minutes from the end there’s a major, earth-shattering plot twist that abruptly switches the film’s tone 180 degrees. And then, five minutes later, it goes back to the way it was before, for a happy ending.
I’m not saying I’m against the inclusion of the twist- and indeed, I’m wondering whether the repeated, apropos-of-nothing references to both the Catholic Church and Penn State football are meant as foreshadowing. But the way it’s dropped in so close to the end, and jumbles the tone, is problematic.
Nevertheless, ‘Perks’ is a winning effort, especially coming from a first-time director helming his own novel.