Perhaps the biggest success writer-director Stephen Chbosky achieves in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the film adaptation of his own 1999 novel, is in the way he breaths back into those traumatizing yet comically obsolete high-school memories a feeling of urgency and nostalgic warmth. Though the movie can be needlessly affected from time to time, there is no denying the sincerity with which almost every moment of high school – even the ugly ones – is lovingly depicted. Emanating from this story of an emotionally and psychologically unstable boy fumbling his way through his freshman year is a feeling that, as horrible as high school was for most of us – and continues to be for many others – there nonetheless were lessons to we learned; lessons that served to improve our sense character and to define our identity. True, there’s nothing conceptually new or refreshing about Wallflower, but its heart is planted so lovingly in the right place that it’s hard to complain too much.
The unstable freshman who leads us through Wallflower is an aspiring writer (aren’t they all?) named Charlie, who is played quite sweetly by Logan Lerman. We do not know right away how Charlie is emotionally troubled, but thanks to the voice-over narration of his own autobiographical writings, we do learn it was serious enough to warrant him “going away” for a while, and extensive enough to make him dread the very idea of entering high school. Day One comes and goes, and the only connection Charlie manages to make is with Mr. Anderson, his inspiring English teacher (aren’t they all?) played by Paul Rudd. Eventually Charlie does befriend another pair of outcasts: a flamboyantly gay kid named Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his self-destructive step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Being the more empirically wizened seniors that they are, the two take pity on Charlie and welcome him to their clique of wonderfully weird outcasts. Or, as Sam playfully refers to them, the “Island of Misfit Toys.”
Charlie and his friends go through a lot over his first year in high school. As the only out gay kid in school, Patrick is not only an easy target for bullies, but is forced into a clandestine – and therefore monumentally unhealthy – relationship with his deeply closeted, popular jock boyfriend (Johnny Simmons). Sam, who spent her early years in high school paying less attention to her studies than to self-destructive debauchery, agonizes over her chances at being able to get into a decent university. Charlie, while simultaneously battling his depression, making new friends and developing his skills as a writer, begins nursing a serious crush on Sam, even as she (maddeningly) continues to date assholes who use her. That crush intensifies as the year progresses, even to the point where he unintentionally, and horrifyingly (and hilariously), sabotages his first high school relationship with Sam’s best friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a girl he never really seemed to care for in the first place.
I can’t emphasize enough how old-hat this movie feels. Being a film adaptation of a book published by MTV in the late nineties, though, I suppose it would be rather silly to expect anything revolutionary from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What Chbosky is selling here is reassurance, not insight; his goal here is to tell a story that relates to anybody who ever had – or is currently having – a hard time in the “Battle Royale” that is high school. And really, since that hellish conceit basically applies to anybody who enrolled in high school, he aims to make a broad-reaching film that speaks to the way our tribulations and relationships during that hellish epoch served to augment our personal sense character.
Such an approach could have resulted in a hopelessly generic movie of treacly, self-motivational platitudes. While Wallflower is extremely sentimental, Chbosky – perhaps channeling his inner-John Hughes – instead delivers something that is surprisingly sincere in its depiction of high school life. He does so by maintaining an affectionate and hopelessly romantic attitude toward his three characters, who are each flawed in their own way, yet are impossible to dislike. Most important to the characters’ success, however, is how genuine each performance feels. Miller, from whom great things are expected, plays Patrick with a fearlessness and thinly-veiled vulnerability that is likely to resonate with many young gay kids in the generations to come. Watson gives the strongest performance yet from a Hogwarts alumnus; she may be the principle object of Charlie’s desire – and she wears that hat stunningly – but she lends to the role a unique sense of pathos, a resentment for the time she wasted in school, and the repercussions she faces as she begins the process to “growing up.” And speaking of Charlie, it’s a relief– for a character intended essentially as the audience’s avatar into the Wallflower world – that Lerman should play him with a discernable personality and specificity. Socially clumsy, yet driven by clear, identifiable and understandable motivations, Charlie is approached is not simply as a generic audience surrogate (à la Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker), but a relatable and loveable human being.
So effective Lerman is in getting us to identify with Charlie and his crises that almost he manages to overpower Chbosky’s biggest misstep: the way Charlie’s, for lack of a better term, “mental illness” is exploited for dramatic facility. Particularly toward the movie’s end, which bypasses a perfectly sensible ending point (without giving too much away, it’s right after the school year ends) before going on for another ten minutes or so, allowing Charlie’s emotional instability – a hazard resting dormant throughout most of the movie – bubbling back to the surface. While it makes sense dramatically for the biggest roadblock to Charlie’s well-being to drop like a bombshell in the film’s coda, I can’t help but feel both that its place in the film as a looming threat is woefully underdeveloped and that it only helps Chbosky in bringing his main characters to Wallflower’s its poetically uplifting, but ultimately needless, final scene. The function of Charlie’s mental illness serves here only to identify more sympathetically with Charlie’s behavior and feelings of insecurity because, after all, it’s far easier for an audience to find sympathy in a person literally incapable of controlling his emotions than somebody who makes bad choices against his better judgment, isn’t it?
To be perfectly clear, I have no issue with movies in which depression or mental illness play a key role, and I want to be sensitive to the fact that – as somebody fortunate enough to have never struggled with the issues Charlie faces – I imagine many who have will identify closely with him. But I have major issues with a movie that uses such a complicated theme as a screenwriting shortcut or as a reason to “exonerate” characters of the actions they take. That is essentially how Charlie’s personal demons function within Wallflower‘s script. Chbosky’s treatment of mental illness does a disservice to his own story – he could have told the same story without this angle and the movie would have lost none of its impact – and it could be argued it trivializes the very real problems faced by individuals actually dealing with severe psychological issues. It is Wallflower sole moment of insincerity, and regrettably, it’s a doozy.
While this treatment of mental illness as character affectation did not bother me nearly as badly as when Stephen Daldry committed the same crime in last year’s noxious Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it admittedly soured my feelings on the movie enough to warrant giving it a slightly lower grade than I had initially intended. But to be clear, beyond its most problematic components, The Perks of Being a Wallflower remains a resolutely sincere, warmly funny and terrifically acted ode to a time many of us would soon forget. Sometimes, the movie suggests, the most challenging and horrifying moments of our young lives can serve to shape us and, if we are lucky enough, can turn us into better, more interesting people in the process. And that’s a rather beautiful thought that deserves to be shared.
Bottom Line: It’s not perfect, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a heartfelt, genuine and fabulously acted high school movie for a new generation.