Watching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
The coming-of-age film is one of my favorite genres, which might explain why I’m willing to give certain coming-of-age films, such as the flawed-but-likable “Youth in Revolt,” a bit of a pass, while coming down harder than necessary on the ones that rub me the wrong way, such as “Thumbsucker.” Because here’s the thing about coming-of-age films: Most of them are flawed. They tend to be overly earnest, wildly implausible and cliched. I love “The Breakfast Club,” but the film critic Pauline Kael was on to something when she described it as “a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.”
The new coming-of-age film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, but is still worth seeing for its sensitivity, occasional wisdom and depth of feeling — the film is quite perceptive about the ways in which misfit teenagers relate to each other. One of my gripes about coming-of-age films is that they often revolve around characters who are desperate to be popular, rather than focusing on the kids who really couldn’t care less about any of that, and are just hoping to make it through high school with a handful of good friends and some good memories; since I was one of these kids, I know that they exist. Fortunately, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has a good sense of how high school misfits think and behave.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” tells the story of a smart, lonely, troubled high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who enters high school just hoping to make a friend. Instead, he is constantly ridiculed and harassed by his peers, which I didn’t fully understand, as Charlie is not only handsome and kind, but also the younger brother of a Penn State football player. But whatever. Things look bleak, until Charlie ingratiates himself with a small band of misfits, led by Patrick (Ezra Miller), who is gay, and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson, from the “Harry Potter” films), whom Charlie is immediately smitten with. Patrick, Sam and their friends are all older, and soon Charlie finds himself hanging out at parties, eating pot brownies, attending showings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and driving around town listening to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” (The film has a great soundtrack.)
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” also explores some pretty serious issues. We learn that Charlie’s best friend committed suicide the year before, and that Charlie himself has been hospitalized for mental health reasons. Patrick is in a relationship with a closeted jock, Sam is trying to put her wild, promiscuous past behind her and get into college and Charlie’s sister is in an abusive relationship with an annoying environmentalist known as Ponytail Derek. These darker elements make “Perks of a Wallflower” something of a balancing act, a mix of lighter, funnier moments and grimmer, more worrisome scenes, and director Stephen Chbosky (adapting his own novel) doesn’t always get the balance quite right. Certain plot threads, such as Charlie’s relationship with his aunt, don’t feel fully fleshed out, and the result is a film that is sometimes awkward and unwieldy, though its heart is in the right place. There were also a number of plot elements that I found hard to believe, such as the ease with which Charlie befriends a group of upper-classmen, or the difficulty this music-savvy group of kids has identifying the singer of “Heroes.”
But there’s a lot that the film does get right, and credit should go to the cast, who look and feel like real teenagers. The kids in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” are quirky, but the film is perceptive about the ways in which misfits embrace quirkiness as a way to compensate for their lack of popularity, and knowledgeable about the complex personalities hiding beneath the surface. At its best, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is affecting and emotionally true; Patrick behaves goofily in public, but is quite serious in private, and his friendship and mentorship of Charlie is very touching. (“You see things, and you understand. You’re a wallflower,” Patrick tells Charlie, in one of the film’s best scenes.) I also liked the scene where Charlie overcomes his shyness and joins Patrick and Sam in dancing to “Come On Eileen,” and his gentle first kiss with Sam. Paul Rudd also has some nice moments as a sympathetic English teacher.
In many ways, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a contemporary reworking of the themes of “The Catcher in the Rye,” but Charlie’s story is ultimately more hopeful than Holden Caulfield’s. Holden’s alienation and bitterness never really lifts, whereas Charlie attains, through friendship and good mental health treatment, a better sense of himself and his place in the world. At the end of the film, he is not the alienated, depressed kid he was at the start of the movie, and that’s a good thing.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is not the best coming-of-age film ever made — that would be “Stand by Me” — but it’s a worthy entry in the canon.
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