Even though “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is based on a young adult novel, it tells its tale with an unhurried maturity that puts many “grown up” movies to shame.
Some of its assuredness springs from the unusual fact that “Perks” was adapted and directed by the man who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky.
Chbosky is best known for writing the cult 1999 novel, but he started his career as a screenwriter and directed an independent feature, “The Four Corners of Nowhere,” (which I haven’t seen) in 1995. Since writing the novel, he wrote the script for the film version of “Rent” (let’s not hold that against him) and co-created and wrote for the TV show “Jericho.” Chbosky has more experience in Hollywood than as an author.
Even so, “Perks” does not bear the hesitant style a filmmaker who hasn’t directed a movie in more than 15 years might exhibit. Chbosky might have leaned heavily on the talent and advice of his cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, his editor, Mary Jo Markey (a J.J. Abrams’ vet), and other key members of his crew, but he uses his own sensibilities to craft a coming-of-age drama that is honest, funny and mostly original.
“Perks” does not begin promisingly. The central character, Charlie (Logan Lerman), is an awkward high school freshman who spends his first day at school narrating the social politics of choosing a table at lunch.
It soon gets better when Charlie falls in with a crowd of gleefully nonconformist seniors led by Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson, taking a confident step away from the world of Harry Potter).
Patrick is the school eccentric. He attends a regular mixer wearing a tuxedo and cashmere scarf. He is also gay, but “Perks” doesn’t make a big deal about this, which is characteristic of the film’s low-key approach. We do get a feeling that Patrick’s relationship with a star football player won’t end amicably, though.
Sam is hip and sexy, and when she learns Charlie listens to the Smiths and the Shags, she says, “You have advanced musical tastes for a freshman.” Charlie is smitten with Sam the moment he sees her. Unfortunately for him, she is the type of upper class high school girl who is fascinated by college men, even if they don’t treat her well. Abusive relationships are a recurring theme.
Paul Rudd plays the requisite cool English teacher who reaches out to Charlie, points him toward fine literature (“The Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc.) and encourages his writing.
It is an iron clad rule in coming-of-age dramas that sensitive high school misfits aspire to become writers. The always welcome Joan Cusack makes a brief but important appearance at the end. Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh play Charlie’s parents in roles that probably were larger in the shooting script than they are in the finished film.
“Perks” is largely a tale of teenage interaction. It follows Charlie’s journey as his older friends introduce him to PG-13-appropriate sex, drugs and rock ’n‘ roll, as well as midnight “Rocky Horror Picture Show” screenings.
“Perks” takes place in Pittsburgh during an indefinite period that is probably the late 1980s. The novel is set in 1991, but in the film CDs are scarcely mentioned and creating a mix tape is the characters’ primary means of expressing their feelings. This fits 1987 or 1988 more than 1991.
“Perks” sometimes feels like the entire run of “Freaks and Geeks” compressed into less than two hours. It is reminiscent, too, of Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” which is also about a hapless loner adopted by a band of merrymakers.
However, the tone of “Metropolitan” was wistful, whereas “Perks” hints at a darkness roiling beneath the surface. Charlie could be the source of the darkness. He sometimes says things like, “I might get bad again.”
Charlie’s life has been rocked by two significant deaths. The aunt who doted on him died in a car accident years ago, and his best friend committed suicide during their last month of middle school. The aunt (played by Melanie Lynskey) appears in flashbacks, but the best friend does not, which is puzzling.
A few things about the story don’t jibe. Charlie’s parents are strict Catholics, so when he is found making snow angels under the influence of LSD after a New Year’s party, it is highly unlikely they would allow him to hang out with Patrick’s artsy crowd again.
Early on, Sam, Charlie and Patrick are blown away by a song on the radio they’ve never heard before. They don’t catch the title and spend the rest of the film trying to figure out the song. The song is “Heroes” by David Bowie, and it seriously undermines the characters’ credibility as music aficionados.
For a character who reveals his feelings through narration, Charlie is still a cipher. When his bad memories resurface, “Perks” goes into a brave place that carries much more weight than the usual high school angst.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” feels like something special, but by the end it becomes something memorable.