Before Twitter and iPhones, before manic pixie dream girls and the world at our Google fingertips, there was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Published in 1999, Stephen Chbosky’s debut novel was a time machine back to high school life in 1991. It was a reminder of the old days as well as a guide for the present – a story that resonated with the young so thoroughly that it’s been “passed from adolescent to adolescent like a hot potato” since. Thirteen years later, the essential read has become an essential movie.
Writer (and now, in a rare turn of events, screenwriter and director) Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel outlines a year in the life of Charlie, an angst-ridden, wildly sensitive teenager. Anxious to find the good in the world, he begins a one-way correspondence with an unnamed “friend” – a stranger he learned about when eavesdropping on a conversation, a person people look up to, who “didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party.” Charlie begins to send the stranger letters as a sort of living diary and emotional anchor, and just like the novel, so begins the film.
An introverted young man, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is alone in high school, counting down the hundreds of days until he will be free. He’s ignored by his old friends, and only talks to his high school English teacher (Paul Rudd) until he discovers a flamboyant senior. Patrick (beautifully played by Ezra Miller) makes the angst-filled Charlie laugh, and like any awkward person looking to connect with a larger-than-life personality, Charlie gravitates towards his older classmate and Patrick’s music-obsessed stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). The pair, likewise, are drawn to Charlie’s genuine, wallflower ways, and embrace him into their atypical circle, or as Sam calls it, their “island of misfit toys” – the vehicle through which Charlie must face himself and his inner demons.
Remarkably, Chbosky’s film encapsulates the same growing magnetism that made the novel so unique. Charlie isn’t a vivacious protagonist immediately gripping the audience, or, for that matter, his friends within the story. He’s a fractured, awkward, unwitting filter of the events. Sometimes awkward and unrelatable, Charlie’s magnetism comes from his genuine earnestness, which allows for a slow build – the story’s roots slowly stretching through the audience until all narrative barriers and particular experiences melt away and his experience becomes our own. This is a story about a world in 1991, which sucked in readers upon its release in 1999, and now flourishes on-screen in 2012.
Perks thrives because each piece fits into the greater whole, allowing Chbosky to reveal a surprisingly loyal and straightforward (yet cinematic) adaptation. The director’s relative inexperience (he directed one indie film in 1995 before working as a writer/producer, most notably on his co-creation Jericho) serves the story surprisingly well. The camera’s unpolished feel isn’t out of place – it embodies Charlie’s frame of view – while the dim light re-creates the grungy films of the ‘90s rather than the hip polish of today’s teen snark.
It helps that the casting is close to perfect. Most of the actors in Perks, from stars to support, are so ideal for their roles that it seems like the film was written for each actor. Lerman allows Charlie to have a greater sense of self-assurance and charismatic sarcasm, while simultaneously embodying the spirit and innocence of the hero on the page. This magic trickles right down to Melanie Lynskey, who is not only perfectly cast as Charlie’s late Aunt Helen, but who also manages to invoke a palpable sense of sweetness and darkness in her brief appearances in the flashes of Charlie’s memory. Star-in-the-making Miller steals every scene as Patrick. He wears the character’s fragile, charismatically heroic skin just as easily as he tormented his movie mother in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The real strength and heart of Perks is that it is much more than any one thing. It is a light, magnetic teen movie just as much as it’s a gritty revelation of many darker teen experiences. In an interview last month, Miller described Perks as an adolescent “necessity,” but it’s also a vessel for lost or forgotten moments. There are handfuls of smaller entry points that add one more root to the film’s hold – one of the most special being the trio’s discovery of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” This new addition to the story is a perfect encapsulation of the characters, that period of life, and that moment in time when you discover something old as if it’s a fresh new thing – how, without the Internet at your fingertips, you had to be patient, hunting and searching until your paths once again crossed with that obsession-creating song.
These days we expect the world. We want to know everything, to have everything, and to experience everything in a crisp and beautiful package. But there’s a beauty in the flawed discovery, in teens who have real, non-Hughesian lives where the magic is a little clumsy (see school dance), in remembrances of the time just before everything changed and media took over. This is the time when group film experiences weren’t instant messages overlaid on a television screen, but masses flooding into theaters and dressing in drag for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Even embroiled in old songs, habits and lives, Chbosky’s original novel captured the teen experience in a way that still resonates today, and his film is one of the most emotionally loyal, yet satisfying, book adaptations to hit screens. There’s no wild loyalty that gets in the way of cinema (Watchmen), just a perfect understanding of the text and how to capture the same feel with live action.
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