Logan Lerman as Charlie
Emma Watson as Sam
Ezra Miller as Patrick
Nina Dobrev as Candace
Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth
Erin Wilhelmi as Alice
Nicholas Braun as Derek
Johnny Simmons as Brad
Reece Thompson as Craig
Paul Rudd as Mr. Anderson
Melanie Lynskey as Aunt Helen
Dylan McDermott as Father
Kate Walsh as Mother
Zane Holtz as Charlie’s Brother
Julia Garner as Susan
Owen Campbell as Michael
Adam Hagenbuch as Bob
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
It’s the first day of high school for Charlie (Logan Lerman) having spent the summer in the hospital after an incident with a friend. He can’t seem to make any friends until he meets half-siblings Patrick and Sam (Ezra Miller, Emma Watson), who pull him into their web of weird friends. An impressionable youth, Charlie is immediately awed by how the group has bonded over their eccentricities, and he spends the year experiencing new things as he tries to forget his past.
There have been many coming of age and high school movies over the years, and Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own bestselling 1999 novel may be coming out in a year where they’ve been particularly pervasive – it resonates with a sense of nostalgia unlike anything we’ve felt in other movies of its ilk.
We don’t spend too much time with Charlie on his first day at high school, as that’s mainly used to introduce him to Patrick and Sam and their circle of weird friends. What’s immediately striking about the film is it’s infectious sense of humor and fun as it makes the characters and situations very relatable, regardless when you attended high school.
As he bonds with his new friends, Charlie starts developing a crush on the equally-damaged Sam, a relationship that complicates matters. As much as this is Charlie’s story, Chbosky gives each of the kids their own arc, the strongest being Patrick who Charlie learns is gay when he walks in on him kissing his secret boyfriend, the school’s star football player, played by Johnny Simmons, something that leads to some of the film’s darker drama later. As we said, there have been other movies that tackle trying to get through high school and experiencing first love, but Chbosky is able to tap into something that feels true and timeless, which is a rarity.
There’s a lot happening in the movie–like the gang’s penchant for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”–but it mainly works due to the terrific young cast and getting Logan Lerman as Charlie was a real coup. Best known for playing Percy Jackson but someone we first noticed when he held his own against Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in James Mangold’s Western remake “3:10 to Yuma,” it’s quite a breakthrough performance for the young actor. By any other actor, Charlie might have felt mopey and dour, but Lerman brings a sense of innocence and wonder to the role that makes it work. For many, the film’s bigger draw will probably be Emma Watson in her first major non-”Harry Potter” role, as she tries to get out from under the shadow of Hermione. Her American accent is a bit hard to get around because at first she seems uncomfortable, even sub-conscious, about it, but once she gets past that, she’s quite fantastic. Ezra Miller also blew us away with a role that allows him to tap into his natural sense of humor, but also shows off his dramatic flair.
Chbonsky’s skills as a director are most evident in getting this young ensemble working so fluidly together that you barely even need adults. Although there are a lot of strong actors among them, only Paul Rudd has any significant recurring role as Charlie’s influential English teacher. You also tend to forget about Charlie’s home life, including a subplot involving his sister’s bad boyfriend that’s all but forgotten even though it plays into one of the film’s recurring themes about accepting the love we think we deserve.
The most striking aspect of Chbosky’s achievement as a filmmaker can be attributed to the way he and his music supervisor have assembled an impeccable soundtrack of period music, ranging from David Bowie to the Smiths to Love and Rockets, all used not only to set the mood of the time period but also to move the story forward. Some of the choices may be questionable, like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but it’s unlikely you’ll forget the Emma Watson and Ezra Miller dance routine that accompanies it.
We know from the beginning that Charlie had been hospitalized and over the course of the story, when things aren’t going as well, the film returns to the first person narrative that opened the film as he writes letters to a mysterious “friend,” and we start getting hints to what happened that drove him to that point as the film gets progressively darker. The last ten minutes of the movie and a big reveal about Charlie’s past may go a bit too far for some, but it’s a real testament to Chbosky that he knows how to end on a high note.
The Bottom Line:
In adapting his own novel, Stephen Chbosky has created an intensely honest and personal look at high school friendships and first love, full of entertaining retro fun and deeply poignant moments. It’s the type of movie that could easily become one of your favorite movies of the year, just as it is ours.