Based on the critically-acclaimed book by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower opened last Friday on just four screens with an impressive $57,000/screen average. Hopefully that means Perks will be rolling out to more theaters soon so it can reach the film's target audience: suburban teenagers. And I certainly hope that happens soon, since Perks feels like one of the best teen movies in a while, foregoing contrived plotlines while never condescending to its audience as it tells the story of a quiet, somewhat troubled high school freshman's yearlong journey to find himself with the help of a group of outcast seniors and a caring English teacher. And the film's palpable sense of honesty and authenticity is surely due to the fact that Chbosky not only wrote the film's screenplay, but also directed Perks in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Watch my ReThink Review of The Perks of Being A Wallflower below (transcript following).
Stephen Chbosky's book The Perks of Being A Wallflower was published in 1999 and went on to become quite popular in the canon of angsty, alienated teenagers in search of themselves. While there are countless horror stories about beloved works that get mangled by uncaring or clueless directors and producers, the film adaptation of Perks is a true rarity in that Chbosky not only wrote the screenplay, but also got to direct it, and his love and understanding of the story, setting, and characters comes through in every frame.
Perks follows Charlie (played by Logan Lerman), a quiet, smart, thoughtful kid starting his freshman year in a Pittsburgh-area high school in 1991. Aside from being unpopular, Charlie is also carrying some pretty heavy baggage, since his best friend recently killed himself and Charlie still hasn't gotten over the loss of his favorite aunt (played in flashbacks by Melanie Lynsky) who died in a car crash on Charlie's seventh birthday.
With no friends, poor social skills, and an older sister (played by Nina Dobrev) who's uninterested in making things easier for him, Charlie's freshman year seems destined for ignominy or anonymity. But that changes when Charlie takes a risk and introduces himself to an outgoing, gay, funny senior from his shop class named Patrick (played by Ezra Miller). Through Patrick Charlie meets Patrick's stepsister Sam, another senior with a somewhat slutty reputation played by Emma Watson from the Harry Potter films.
Through Patrick, Sam, and their friends, Charlie is introduced to the finer points of adolescence, like cool bands, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, drugs, style, and relationship drama, especially pertaining to his inevitable crush on Sam. Charlie also finds a mentor in his English teacher (played by Paul Rudd), who notices something special in Charlie and loans him books to encourage his burgeoning interest in writing.
I was in high school in the early '90s, so I definitely have a soft spot for the time period when Perks takes place, as well as the film's soundtrack with songs by bands like L7, Cracker, and Pavement. Perks also made me genuinely nostalgic for the bygone era of mix tapes and the art of carefully assembling the most meaningful songs to express what your hormone-addled brain couldn't. But Perks thankfully doesn't try to make the '90s kitschy or nostalgic, since in most ways, teen angst is a story for any era.
And this is one of the many things that Perks gets right. The film really captures the excitement of being a confused, scared newcomer falling in with an older crew of infinitely cool, seemingly self-possessed role models, where Charlie starts as sort of a surrogate little brother, a witness, and a repository for secrets before becoming a full-fledged member as his identity takes shape. The film also captures the pain and longing of having a crush on a cool and pretty girl who inexplicably dates losers and assholes, which, as many guys know, is a tragedy as old as the hills.
Despite looking great and being the film's biggest star, I actually thought Watson gave the weakest performance and seems a bit out-of-place, maybe because she was concentrating too hard on getting her American accent right, or that she seems too smart and clean to be a promiscuous dater of duds. Or maybe it's because the rest of the cast feels so real, especially Miller, who does a great job of being funny and fabulous but with his own insecurities and frustrations just below the surface.
There are plenty of movies about how tough high school can be for shy kids and outcasts. But the honesty of The Perks of Being A Wallflower, which I'm sure comes from the deep affection Chbosky has for the characters he created, makes the film feel both fresh as well as timeless by showing that sometimes you need role models to find yourself, but no matter how cool some kids seem, no one has it all figured out.