Ric Roman Waugh, 2013
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower makes a case for authors directing the adaptations of their own novels. It has a comfort and confidence with its characters that can only come from someone who’s built and rebuilt them from the inside out. Though this is a coming-of-age film du jour, and it checks many of the genre’s usual boxes, it feels warm and genuinely affectionate in a way that’s impossible to manufacture. You’ve seen this story before, but maybe not populated with personalities this fully realized and alive.
Take, for example, Patrick, the class clown who befriends the film’s nebbishy freshman protagonist Charlie (Logan Lerman). Patrick, who is gay, is played by We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller as loud, confident, and just this side of flamboyant. It is so easy to imagine, in a lesser film, the character turning into broad comic relief, a sassy gay friend cliche; or if not that, then a mere foil or fount of wisdom for Charlie. But Patrick is a singular individual, lived-in and worth knowing, crafted by Miller and Chbosky with tenderness and care. The film dares to give him a real relationship, passionate and tragic; his own hang-ups and insecurities. Miller is phenomenal in the role, and the character feels completely unconstrained by any screenwriter’s notion of anything.
Patrick has a nice, easy rapport with his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), with whom he is so close that Charlie mistakes them for a couple. Sam is drawn a bit closer to a cliche — she’s the protagonist’s beautiful crush who carries around a vein of self-loathing and dates jerks (the film makes this its theme, repeating that “we accept the love we think we deserve”). But she’s played with such unaffected charm by Watson (now clearly the most likely Harry Potter discovery to have a real post-franchise career) that she too flowers into a breathing human before our eyes. Even her slightly motherly affection for Charlie, accompanying a sly and somewhat cruel awareness of his infatuation — another cliche — feels real.
Charlie himself narrates the story of how he, a sad and lonely freshman outcast, found these new friends (along with some others) and came into his own. Logan Lerman is maybe a shade too good-looking to easily accept as the nerdy high school pariah, but he has an easygoing, unforced sensitivity that lets him nail the part. And there are a few moments where his and Chbosky’s visions align to truly memorable effect. At one point Charlie witnesses his sister struck across the face by her boyfriend, and I was suddenly really moved by the way Charlie startles, recoils, and then sort of lumbers into the room, his feet carrying him before his brain can come up with a plan. It’s the essence of a coming-of-age plot: he has the right instincts but hasn’t yet learned how to execute on them.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a dark side with which it plays a little coy, setting up a quasi-plot twist that’s the least organic thing in the film. It feels cheap to hide the ball this way. But even the ending has a generosity of spirit that gets it through. Some movies seem to think that being sincere and earnest and guileless is its own virtue; that it makes everything else okay. Perks understands that sincerity is something you work at, and construct from the ground up.
-- Eugene Novikov
|Starring:||Reece Thompson, Melanie Lynsky, Mae Whitman, Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons, Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd|
|Directed by:||Steven Chbosky|