by Chris Dale
Making a case for Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not an easy task. It’s a deserving film, no doubt, but there is no sparkle, no pizzazz, no excitement. It’s the rare film that does nothing more than try to tell a story in a clean, unsophisticated way. It has a firm sense of time, place and character, you know, the fundamentals. It’s not quirky, nor experimental, nor innovative. You will not leave the theater thinking that what you’ve seen is revolutionary, groundbreaking or inventive.
Nor does the film have a pedigree that grabs your attention. The film is written and directed by Chbosky who adapted it from a young adult novel he wrote 13 years prior. Its cast is largely unknown or unheralded. The only cast member with major film experience is Emma Watson from the Harry Potter series, which many will more likely see as a detriment than a positive. And to make it an even harder sell to voters it hasn’t done particularly well at the box office. At only 16 million dollars, to many this film is a mostly forgettable coming-of-age teen movie that got a handful of good critical notices. “Next!” you can hear the crotchety old Hollywood legend yell as he sifts through his stack of screeners.
But what this film has is restrained direction, a smart screenplay, and a slew of sensitive performances. It clearly has many influences from coming-of-age dramas of the past, from the alienation in The Graduate, a premise from Sixteen Candles, and a central tragedy from Mysterious Skin. But it never steals from these films, it merely uses them as a jumping off point. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is unique unto itself.
The film opens to pre-emo The Samples’ “Could it Be Another Change” a forgotten song from a forgotten group from somewhere in Colorado. It’s the first of many songs you’ve probably not heard recently, if ever. It’s the first clue that perhaps this film will take a different path. And that’s quickly confirmed as the camera introduces us to Charley, expertly played by Logan Lerman. Charley is writing a letter to an unspecified recipient who is only identified as “someone who doesn’t sleep with someone even though they could have.” We have no idea who this is but we quickly surmise this is some sort of confessional as he admits to being hospitalized when he was young. For what, we don’t know.
We quickly see that Charley is an outsider who has no friends. He’s also wickedly smart and has a penchant for literature. He’s also part of a family of seemingly well-adjusted people whom Charley loves but can’t entirely relate. But Charley’s world is not what it first seems, as we see his sister’s boyfriend strike her. This won’t be your typical coming-of-age story. Indeed as Charley finds friends, we also learn that Charley has experienced two heart wrenching tragedies in his young life, one of which we learn is far more complex than what we are originally led to believe.
But it’s Charley’s new friends that allow him to place some distance between the present and the past. Charley is drawn to these people because they too are outcasts, and they too have pasts they are trying to escape. He meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) who is having a clandestine relationship with the extremely closeted high school quarterback. And Charley develops a crush on Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), who’s been taken advantage of sexually from an early age.
And this is where Chbosky shows a tremendous ability to tell a story that isn’t prurient or exploitative, he shows restraint as we see these damaged people live mostly happy lives with the help of the people around them. The film wisely avoids stereotypical plot development, one subplot even stalls abruptly and never resumes. These people’s lives meander somewhat purposely as they try to get through the school year so they can begin whatever happens after.
And as the film develops Chbosky gives us so many memorable lines and situations and small exchanges even with minor characters. Chbosky has a gift at getting to the core of a character in a manner of seconds and it’s never done in a simple or predictable way. And by the end, we have moved on from the idea that this is just a coming-of-age tale, it’s really a tale of tragedy and redemption, one that will, if you give it the opportunity break your heart and then promptly heal it after.
There’s a scene early on where Charley, Sam and Patrick are driving on a crowded highway and an unidentified song comes on and all three are drawn to it. Sam quickly instructs her stepbrother to head to the tunnel and we see her stand in the back arms akimbo giving in to the wind. The cars around them vanish and all we see are the three of them living in the moment and then Charley turns and says to Patrick, “I feel infinite.” And that’s how the movie makes you feel. When you leave the theater, you too will feel infinite. And alive. And it will do it in a way you’ve never felt before.