Written by Steve Geise
It’s not easy being a new freshman in high school, especially when you’re dealing with no friends, the suicide of your former best friend, and the lingering effects of childhood trauma. Introverted young Charlie (Logan Lerman) is determined to make a go of it though, eventually landing himself in the orbit of a group of senior outcasts who gleefully define themselves as the “Island of Misfit Toys”. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel, the emotions are raw, the music is crucial, and Charlie’s mental health constantly hangs in the balance.
The story is set in the early ‘90s, but close enough to the ‘80s in look, feel, and song selections that it’s difficult to distinguish it from a lost work of John Hughes. Specifically, it’s closest to The Breakfast Club with its dramatic themes and similar band of underachieving misfits, but the central dark and brooding Charlie character is nothing like Anthony Michael Hall’s twerpy, jokey freshman. Here the freshman becomes a full equal to his senior peers, bonding with them over music, romance, and illegal substances as he clings to them as a lifeboat in his sea of despair. The emotional intensity comes off as a bit too precious, with Chbosky clearly not having enough distance from the material to convey it objectively, and yet viewers willing to abandon themselves to the work will be rewarded with a powerful reminder of the overwhelming strength and passion of high school feelings.
Charlie’s best friends in the group become Patrick (Ezra Miller), an incredibly charismatic and openly gay free spirit, and Patrick’s sister Sam (Emma Watson), a reformed bad girl with low self-esteem. Of course Charlie immediately falls in love with Sam, and of course she only sees the freshman as a friend, beginning a spiraling cycle of obsession and confusion for the lad that isn’t helped by mixed signals she eventually sends his way. The trio’s initial connection is cemented by a momentous nighttime joyride where they hear David Bowie’s song “Heroes” for the first time while Sam stands in the back of the pickup truck with arms outstretched to the starry sky and proclaims “We. Are. Infinite”. Heady stuff for a freshman to be sure, and just enough to keep his mind off his friend’s suicide and his increasing childhood flashbacks to the death of his aunt. Considering what music junkies they all were though, with Charlie an especially rabid devotee of The Smiths, it’s inconceivable that none of them had heard the Bowie song before, which was probably my biggest gripe about the film.
The key characters all go through transformative experiences during the year, with Patrick dealing with a closeted gay relationship and its repercussions, Sam suffering through an abusive romance as proof of Charlie’s adopted motto “we find the love we think we deserve”, and Charlie relapsing into a full mental breakdown before finally facing his childhood demons and preparing for the rest of high school without his graduating friends. Charlie’s psychosis is never clearly defined until near the end of the film, leaving viewers in the dark about its origin as we’re fed morsels of recurring and progressively lengthening flashbacks until the horrible truth becomes clear. That withholding makes it hard for us to understand Charlie in the early going, and calls into question the truth of his motivations and even the unsubstantiated story of his best friend’s suicide. While we eventually learn the facts, the prolonged confusion leaves a question mark hanging over the character for much of the film, taking away from his validation as a worthy protagonist.
The three lead actors are great in their roles, with Miller an especially magnetic presence as he asserts himself as one to watch in years to come. Lerman does a fine job with the emotional range of his role, while Watson proves she’s more than Hermione. It’s helpful for authenticity that the actors are actually close to high school age for a change, with Lerman and Miller barely out and Watson within a few years. The rest of the cast doesn’t get much screen time but supports their limited roles well, led by Mae Whitman (Parenthood) as another misfit friend and Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) as Charlie’s concerned sister. Chbosky proves to be adept at marshalling his young cast through the spectrum of teen emotions and gives them room to contribute memorable work.
DVD bonus features are headlined by a sizeable assortment of deleted scenes, along with a making-of featurette where Chbosky raves about his cast and comments multiple times about the surreal and rewarding experience of directing them through a prom scene that functioned as their actual prom since all of these former child actors never went to real high school.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital rental on Tuesday, February 12th.