Silver Screen: The Perks of Being a Wallflower ****
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a far more manageable literary adaptation than Cloud Atlas, and though it's far more conventional, it's also a more unqualified success. Nearly two decades after publishing the book, Steven Chbosky directs and writes the screenplay for his popular coming of age novel. It's been a long twenty years, and Wallflower is as firmly entrenched in the 1990s as, well, the Wallflowers. The phoneless, low-tech teens of the Clinton era have the kind of quaint naïveté one associates with Quakers and devout hippies. Chbosky's film feels like more of a time capsule than his novel did upon its release-- it didn't strain for relevance-- but its portrayal of teen alienation and the excitement that comes with the first glimpses of a wider world remain timeless.
The wallflower of the title is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy, sensitive freshman at a suburban high school in Pennsylvania. Chbosky borrows the book's epistolary structure to frame the voiceover narration, which is styled as a series of letters Charlie writes to a nameless friend, presumably his former best pal who we learn shot himself the year prior.
Charlie begins to blossom socially when he's adopted by a resilient but emotionally troubled pair of seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). They're step-siblings with a close bond but separate woes-- he's as openly gay as a high schooler could be in 1990 and secretly dating a closeted football star (Johnny Simmons), while an incident in her past keeps her vulnerable in a series of bad relationships. They take Charlie to live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show-- perhaps the movie's most singularly antiquated element-- bring him to parties, supply him with drugs, introduce him to a potential girlfriend (Mae Whitman), and encourage his writing talent. Charlie also befriends by an overqualified English teacher (Paul Rudd), but even with his new friends and peek into a world beyond his troubled childhood he's threatened by a dark secret only he knows.
There are a lot of dark secrets in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, perhaps a few too many. Not only does Charlie have enough trauma for at least two coming-of-age films, seemingly every character is attached to a tragedy, no matter how small their roles. It's forgivable with the lead trio, but subplots like Charlie's sister’s domestic abuse at the hands of her conflicted Donahue-liberal boyfriend feels like a reel from a Lifetime original spliced into a much better film.
Chbosky's approach to the film is restrained, even if his story does threaten to tip into melodrama on occasion. His solid line-to-line writing and ability to quickly sketch characters without rendering them cliché helps a lot, though, and he has a phenomenal young cast. Watson is the ideal sensitive-boy object of desire, playing up the optimistic side of a largely tragic character. Arrested Development's Whitman wonderfully walks the line between charming and obnoxious as Charlie's would-be first love. And there aren't many better young actors than Miller, who was absolutely chilling in the spectacular (and spectacularly dark) We Need to Talk About Kevin; it's 180 degrees away from his gleefully rebellious turn here, but he's equally convincing in both roles. You wish you had more time with supporting players like Rudd, Dylan McDermott as Charlie's stern but fair father, and Melanie Lynsky as his late aunt, but it's a good sign when the biggest complaint about a movie you can think of is that you wish there was more of it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.