Ah, a note pad. How useful. Looking over the audience before the movie starts shows a clear demographic appeal. More than three-quarters of the audience are females between 13 and 25. The rest are mates, gay, or me. While I have no problem with any of these people, our tastes are not ordinarily aligned outside of mainstream releases. Since The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is a limited release–did I mention NYC is the place to be?–there’s a concern that it will be quirky, cheesy, or poorly written. It’s just anecdotally proven that a relationship that is slightly (or ludicrously) complicated will carry a movie/show further for these groups than they do for me. Turns out that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has something for almost everyone. Everyone in this audience anyway.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting high school. He’s had some troubles last year and things got bad. We come to find that that was just the latest in bad things to happen to Charlie. His troubles have made him introverted in the extreme but he’s smart and intelligent and is always watching. The wallflower always knows. He communicates to his unnamed friend by letters to help him vent. Charlie goes to watch a high school football game by himself (presumably to force himself into human interaction) and spots the (senior) class clown Patrick (Ezra Miller) who Charlie has picked out as a kind character. Charlie says, “Hi, Patrick” and they’re friends. Christ, that was easy. Moments later, Patrick’s hot friend (actually half-sister) Sam (Emma Watson) arrives at the game and squeezes Charlie into a happy friend sandwich. Patrick and Sam bring Charlie into their circle of odd friends and Charlie does well. Of course he does. Charlie is pure and innocent. Impure and un-innocent people love boys like Charlie. He personifies hope and promise. What follows is the year in the lives of three folks with plenty of emotional baggage.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky who wrote and directed the film. According to the young lady sitting next to me in the theater, this book is suggested reading for teens. Oh no. It would appear that it is quite popular with the audience and many mention having read it. Oh definitely no. The previews include a trailer of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012). Don’t panic.
You shouldn’t panic. This movie is in the spirit of John Hughes, not Nicholas Sparks. In fact, if you read a review of this movie without a mention of John Hughes, I will go out and lick one of the poles on the subway, that’s how like John Hughes movies this is. Well, one movie in particular: Pretty in Pink (1986). There are notes of Sixteen Candles (1984) and a The Breakfast Club (1985) nose, but the body and finish are all Pretty in Pink. This is about the unity of the freakhood and how friendship basically makes everything better in Acts III and V.
But the movie, while highly populist as Hughes is, also goes a little deeper–or rather stays a little deeper. Forgive all the movie-dropping, but this is very like another troubled teen movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) which is about a teen who commits himself (perhaps prematurely) in a hospital because of his suicidal thoughts. It’s like Pretty in Pink had a baby with It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Almost Famous (2000) watched. All things to recommend it.
What makes this enjoyable to the chicks and me–the pricks?–is that it has the relationship-bound-to-be as well as the unrelentingly sad reality of emotional damage. There is a little platitudinous advice being thrown around at the near-end, but that’s a bump in a great final twenty minutes. And the finish is so important to a coming of age story. If I may metaphor, a pure central character is the vanilla ice cream that is so smooth and creamy, the quirky friends are the chopped nuts that make things crunchy and interesting, the family is the whipped cream that makes it sweet and fun, the moments of friendship are the molten fudge that keeps everything together, and the ending is the cherry that, if sour or absent, will decide whether you finish happy or sick to your stomach.
This is Chbosky’s first outing as a director in 17 years and third film screenplay. I was quite ready to praise his direction as phenomenal when I thought this was his very first film, but it doesn’t change my opinion that it was near great for the vast majority of the film. He doesn’t wait around to close out a scene but knows when he needs to establish something and when he doesn’t. The movie is also stylistic without being overwrought. There are some nits that I could pick, I’m sure, but I’m disinclined to do so when it hit the important notes so perfectly. A part of this is the story which, from what I can tell on the Wikipedia summary, is an exact adaptation of Chbosky’s novel. It provides very strong material to a strong cast.
The dialogue is occasionally very neat and funny. One interaction stands out. Charlie asks his father, “Can I borrow thirty dollars?” Dad says, “Twenty dollars? What do you want to borrow ten dollars for?” It was such a funny bit done perfectly by Dylan McDermott and left me wishing there was more of it. I can recall only another such moment for McDermott and it’s a shame because so much could be made of the character. That’s a mark of a great movie. All the characters warrant their own film. I’m not saying this is a great movie or will be held as such, but I do think it ranks as a very good movie alongside something like Almost Famous.
Along with McDermott, another great performances come from Mae Whitman (as Buddhist punk, Mary Elizabeth) and super solid work out of Paul Rudd (as the English teacher). Mae Whitman reminded me very strongly of the middle-aged Carrie Fisher (in the best possible way). As for leads, I was very pleased. Watson’s American accent was perfect. Neither Watson nor Miller were charting terra incognita but they didn’t let down those who came before them. Lerman was very good. His steps into the unknown were small but sure. He went out there and refused to play the caricature. The real introvert has all the lines stored in his head just waiting to pop out and that came through. Lerman reminds me of a younger Jake Gyllenhaal in sound and appearance. I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or aspersion in terms of acting prowess. I also add a small roll of the eyes for Joan Cusack who lays it on a bit thick when subtlety has been proven more effective in medical studies.
Viewers Beware: This film is set in the early 1990’s and involves what are now clinically referred to as “hipsters.” They love The Smiths, think things sound better on vinyl, and have yet to be saved by grunge. These pathetic wastrels know “Asleep” but can’t identify “Heroes” (1977) by David Bowie. Still, a great collection of music on display and well deployed.
I suspect that those of a higher brow will respond to this film in accordance with the mood in which they enter the theater. I went in relatively blank, was made to laugh, and was on board for the duration. If you go in with expectations of being made to feel a certain way or issues to be dealt with in a particular manner, then you may get caught up in its ordinariness. I am completely and utterly in the tank for coming of age movies–I direct you again to Submarine (2010)–perhaps due to my completely ordinary and baggage-free childhood or perhaps in spite of it. I think it may be because at that time of life, the formative years, the main characters don’t understand the world around them. For them, it’s all new and some of it even seems good.
One question, though. What are the perks?