Friday, October 19, 2012

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER: A Beautiful Teenage Wasteland


- I only had a mild familiarity with the source material on which THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is based, but I had a feeling I might be in good hands with this one, given that the film is actually written and directed by Steven Chbosky, the author of the original book. It's rare that we see this happen, but what we get here is something pretty cool - a film that feels both literary and cinematic - a work that uses music, imagery, and nonlinearity to encapsulate Chbosky's themes into a moving and evocative experience. This movie portrays the heightened reality of being a teenager to perfection. And while the melodrama can feel cheesy at first, eventually, the movie won me over by taking me back to the way things seem and feel during those awkward and formative high school years. What's more, a great cast brings this story to life in a way that makes this movie feel real and lived-in.

PERKS centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), entering high school as a delayed freshman after having been "sick" and away from school for a while. We slowly learn more about some of the tragedies that have befallen Charlie, that have kept him out of school and sort of isolated and alone. We also learn that he's got some mental health issues that he's been trying his best to put behind him. But his social isolation has left him pretty depressed, and made him very nervous for his first day of high school. Luckily, Charlie quickly falls in with a group of outcasts and misfits, and for the first time has a group to which he belongs. Of course, each member of the group is dealing with their own issue. Patrick (a fantastic Ezra Miller) has been keeping the fact that he's gay a secret from all but a few of his friends. His step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson, also fantastic), has a troubled past - drinking too much and sleeping with too many guys - but now wants to get her life in order and get into a good college. Of course, for Charlie, it's love at first sight. But even as Sam keeps falling into the arms of not-so-nice guys, her friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) - a tortured intellectual - develops a crush on Charlie. Charlie also begins forming a friendship with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who mentors Charlie and turns him on to the books and authors that will shape his worldview.

There's a lot of humor in Perks, a lot of hilariously awkward coming-of-age moments. And the cast handles it all beautifully. But all of the quirk and slice-of-life hijinks are given a weighty undertone because of the serious issues that Charlie is grappling with. For any of us, high school is a time of heightened emotion and experience, and Charlie's mental instability is sort of an even more heightened version of what we all go through. But Chbosky balances all the teen angst with a real feel for the little moments that can be transcendent, memorable, funny, and weird. I think of Charlie and his friends attending a live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, of Mary Elizabeth's ultra-awkward seduction of Charlie, of a recurring joke that all the characters keep making mixtapes for each other ... as moments in the film that are at once funny and poignant.

The cast in this one is just fantastic as well. Lerman does a nice job of expressing bottled-up emotion, making it all the more hard-hitting when he does let loose. Watson is stellar - whereas you could say that Harry Potter's Hermione was sort of the whip-smart girl-next-door, Sam is the other end of the spectrum - the proto manic-pixie-dream-girl who is essentially a walking high-school crush for the outsiders and outcasts set. If the movie has a breakout performance though, it may well be Ezra Miller as Patrick. He does a brilliant job of slowly but surely peeling away the layers of the character. At first, he's the class-clown - an eccentric goof-off. But as time goes by we see the torment this guy goes through, and how his friends aren't so much an audience as they are a support-system. There are all sorts of other great little performances in the film - Rudd is spot-on, Whitman is fantastic, Dylan McDermot is strong as Charlie's dad, Nina Dobrev has some nice scenes and his sister, and there's a great little role for Tom Savini as the put-upon shop teacher who's often the butt of Patrick's pranks. But there's barely a moment of falseness in the film - certainly not on the part of the actors. These guys nail it.

Chbosky uses a lot of cinematic tools to make a world he once wrote about in prose become fully realized on film. One of the biggest things is music. The soundtrack overflows with music that will stick with you, especially given how big of a role music plays in the lives of the characters, and in the story as a whole. The Smiths, Bowie, The Beatles, 90's one-hit-wonders like Cracker ... all evoke one one hand the era the movie takes place in (hello, 90's), but also the semi-timeless sort of songs that makeup the soundtrack of teenagedom. The movie takes on an MTV music video feel, in some ways, but in a good way. It wanders, it goes quiet, gets loud, jumps in time, and creates a tapestry of moments that shape Charlie's young adulthood.

If I have any complaint, it's that a major reveal at the end of the film - about Charlie's past - felt a bit off to me. And this revelation sends the movie into a final-act spiral that feels rushed. Without spoiling anything, the movie seems to keep building towards being a semi-triumphant story for Charlie. Sure, he had a pretty terrible childhood up to now, but now he's found friends, found confidence, loved and lost, lived life. That, I thought, was the note that the movie would go out on, and it would have worked for me. But at a fast clip, we instead get a new low for Charlie, followed by a coda that is sort of a band-aid to make sure we go home at least semi-happy. I think the message is that life is messy, and that there's no pat happy endings. I just thought the movie didn't go out on quite the high note it could have.

Still, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is one of the nice cinematic surprises of 2012. A quintessential coming-of-age movie, it will take you back, and evoke those same feelings of life-as-great-drama that every teenager feels. Sometimes in adulthood, it's valuable to remember a time when you were less numb and more vulnerable - and this is a film that washes over you and takes you back to that teenaged wasteland.

My Grade: A-

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