I challenge you not to be moved by The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, the author of the best-selling novel that inspired the story, there is a little bit of all of us peppered throughout this film. Even if it isn’t instantly recognizable or even if you are never able to put your finger on it, you’re going to have that feeling. It’s a warm feeling, a feeling of togetherness, friendship and camaraderie.
Chbosky has created characters you root for and not just because they’re underdogs or because they have life issues that are almost impossible to overcome, but because they are people. Despite how much we love to focus and harp on the negative, deep down we all want to see the best for those around us and the more you get to know the people that inhabit the Pittsburgh landscape of Perks of Being a Wallflower the more you’re going to cheer for them.
The story focuses on some serious issues, none of which I’ll go into in much depth here because Chbosky’s screenplay does a brilliant job of treating his characters as people and not as victims. It’s the true charm of the film in fact. Several moments are dealt with using such subtlety, it’s a lesson in emotional impact from a director whose only other directorial feature was a 1995 comedy you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that’s even heard of it.
To the point of being unaware, going into this film I had no knowledge of the book. I didn’t know Chbosky’s novel had been published in 16 countries and translated in 13 languages. All I knew was it was another high school movie and centered on an outsider, Charlie (Logan Lerman), and his hardships in making friends. In the simplest terms this is what Perks of Being a Wallflower is about, but it doesn’t prepare you for the story as it’s told or the characters and performances you’ll be watching.
Lerman’s career doesn’t suggest what you’ll see from him here. Charlie has his issues. He’s an outsider and has a hard time making friends and is on his way to his first day at high school. A first day that’s largely a bust. It appears the only friend he’s made is with his English teacher (Paul Rudd) but he soon gravitates toward the eccentricities of a senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson).
As a freshman it would seem he’s hit the jackpot, finding friendship in upperclassmen, but this goes beyond age. There are deeper connections here. Each has their skeletons and as the film plays on, their true identities bubble to the surface, bringing them closer while life as high schoolers and soon-to-be college freshmen plays a part.
Chbosky does his best to maintain the idea that his characters are in high school, avoiding the trap of making them seem smarter than they are or sporting vocabularies similar to the not-so-young adults seen in television shows such as “Dawson’s Creek.” He bumps up against the edge every now and again, but for the most part remains restrained. But beyond all of this, the one outstanding factor when it comes to this film is in the direction and editing. I thought Lerman, Watson, Miller and Mae Whitman were fantastic, but Chbosky’s story decisions are the star of the show.
When any film like this would normally zig, Chbosky zags. When a film like this would normally use a character’s personal problems as a crutch, Chbosky chooses to acknowledge his characters’ “problems” as anyone would, but focuses on the fact they are people just like us. He focuses on the important things. He tells us what we need to know.
Sure, he’s manipulative, but when certain elements of the plot are revealed it’s not as much for dramatic effect, but to add another layer to the characters you find yourself falling in love with. After all, when was the last time you met someone and within the first hour knew everything about them? Chbosky uses this reality to build his characters and it’s a masterful example of patience in storytelling.
Of the many films I’ve seen so far this year, this is one of the few I would watch again in a heartbeat and walking around the streets of Toronto I was telling as many people as I could to go see it. I even spent about 10 minutes reliving the second half for someone that had to leave midway through to make another screening and each and every time I talk about it I feel the warmth, energy and humor it provides washing over me all over again.
Audiences that see this film are going to love it and hopefully Summit can manage to get them into the theaters without thinking they’re in store for just another teen high school tragedy. This is so much more than anything generic that you’ve seen before. Chbosky knew exactly what he was doing and never overstates his message. He keeps you locked in throughout the entire film and by the year’s end I’m sure I’ll be talking about it again.