Stephen Chbosky’s Love Letter to the ’90s: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

High school is an awkward time for all of us. We struggle through those years to figure out who we are and find our place in the world. Above all else, we want to belong. If you’re naturally shy and if, like Charlie (Logan Lehrman), the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you carry a burden that no one seems capable of understanding, it can be easy to feel like an outcast.

When we first meet Charlie, he’s a despondent freshman at a Pittsburg public high school, literally counting down the days to his graduation. We learn in the first scene that he recently spent time in the hospital, and that he hasn’t talked to anybody but his family all summer. But we won’t learn the nature of his ailment, or the source of his ever-present anxiety, until much later in the film.

Before long, Charlie falls in with a crowd of proudly nonconformist seniors who call themselves the wallflowers, and for the first time, he belongs. His friend Patrick (Ezra Miller) wears the nickname “nothing’” like a badge of honor—warring against fascist shop teachers, and sparring with insult wielding jocks and cool kids. And Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), enchants Charlie with her thrill-seeking, free-spirited nature, and he falls instantly and impossibly in love with her.

But beneath their outward appearances of confidence and charisma, Charlie’s new friends fight demons of their own. Patrick’s closeted football player boyfriend won’t acknowledge their relationship in public and Sam’s history of dating older men has earned her a reputation for promiscuity. Together, these wallflowers navigate their hostile social environment, and discover freedom, self-realization and love in their friendships with each other.

Director Stephen Chbosky did an excellent job casting the film. Logan Lerman plays the mysterious and tortured Charlie with just the right amount of restraint, saving up a deeply cathartic emotional outpouring for the movie’s final, pivotal scenes. Ezra Miller shines as Patrick, breathing the perfect balance of sarcasm and sincerity into his multifaceted character. And Emma Watson captivates as Sam, in one of her first major post-Hermione roles.

In addition to its memorable characters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower offers viewers a painstakingly crafted ode to a recently bygone era, and provides plenty of nostalgia for ‘90s high school grads whose coming-of-age experiences involved ill-advised drug experimentation, late night viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and trading meticulously curated mix-tapes. This movie is Chbosky’s love letter to that time, and he brings it back to life through an exacting attention to period detail. Music editor Jennifer Nash’s soundtrack further infuses the movie with the energy of the era, with Morrisey’s plaintive baritone and the swelling grandeur of Bowie’s “Heroes” coloring its most unforgettable scenes.

Chbosky adapted his own novel here, for his directorial debut, and for the most part, the story carries over well from page to screen. The dialogue is sharp and funny throughout, and the scenes are nicely paced and well balanced in terms of their mood and intensity. However, the script relies too heavily on novelistic devices to convey Charlie’s internal monologue, alternating between traditional voice-over, letters to a mysterious pen-pal, and a series of increasingly disturbing childhood flashbacks. Charlie’s struggle to understand the tragic history of his own past forms the movie’s emotional core and its primary source of narrative tension. Unfortunately, this struggle occurs almost entirely within the space of his own mind, and fails to connect with the otherwise engaging story in any concrete, meaningful way.

Despite this major flaw in the storytelling, the movie remains highly enjoyable throughout, reminding us that for all of its difficulties, high school can also be a time of great joy—of meaningful friendships and first love. It can be a time of discovering yourself, outside of whatever mold your family and your society has tried to shape you in, and finding out that you are not alone.

The DVD’s special features include a short documentary on the film’s production, and full commentary by the director and cast. It’s fun to witness the friendships that formed between these actors while working on the film, and to hear their personal experiences with some of the more difficult or enjoyable scenes. And Chbosky adds fascinating autobiographical and symbolic details throughout the commentary, making it a worthwhile investment of time for serious fans of the movie, or the novel that preceded it.

RATING 7 / 10