Question asked of 24-year-old friend: "In your imagination, what do you think it was like before the Internet and cell phones?"
His answer: "Everything was probably very slow."
Yes. Yes, it was. And there's a perfectly illustrative plot thread in this adaptation of screenwriter/director Stephen Chbosky's novel that proves it. Though the year is never mentioned, if you're old enough to identify the songs the film references and uses as background, you'll pinpoint it taking place around 1993. So when high school cool-girl Sam (Emma Watson) is searching for the title of a David Bowie song that she, her gay step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller) and bookish, troubled freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman) all find emotionally resonant, she spends months on its trail instead of Googling a snippet of lyric or Shazam-ing it from a speaker at Chipotle. When she finally tracks it down ("Heroes," by the way) and the nagging urgency of the earworm-itch is satisfied, enough time has passed that the song has become a stand-in for every too-big teenage feeling they've been storing up since that first listen.
A friendship quickly springs up between Charlie, Sam and Patrick, one that changes all of them and that, especially for Charlie, allows him to finally feel a sense of belonging among like-minded weirdos. It's instant, based on the nonconformist-radar that kids on the fringes of popularity have always employed, but it's also friendship that moves slowly. For kids of that era, landlocked away from New York or Los Angeles, challenged by boredom in suburban or rural spaces, all of life was marked by that more deliberate movement, hanging out face to face, doing nothing together instead of together-alone on Facebook, swapping mixtapes as emotional currency, allowed to grow up privately instead of in public. If there's any nostalgia-wallowing involved in the movie's two-decades-past setting, it's for that sense of pace and intimacy.
The plot shuffles along, Rocky Horror Picture Show fandom is explored, books are read, Cocteau Twins and Smiths songs are litmus tests of reality, unrequited crushes get crushed and attempts at virginity loss meet necessary failure, all playing a part in pushing Charlie to a mental health crisis. It's a troubling moment that feels tacked on to an already full agenda but one that never feels false, cheap or exploitive.
In fact, the film's overall gentle, generous tone smooths over rough plot mechanics and pushes what could have been warmed-over John Hughes-isms into heartfelt truth. Hughes would probably be proud of it because it takes its teenagers as seriously as they take themselves and the result is a kind of unshowy achievement, one that straddles decades with humane, Breakfast Clubby sincerity and an emotional impact that hits squarely in the Right Now of adolescence. Who cares if all of its references are from the Slow Ages?