Teen cinema is such an unforgiving mistress. If it’s done wrong, the experience is self indulgent and exploitative (LOL, Project X, Crazy/Beautiful, She’s All That, Can’t Hardly Wait). However, when it’s done right – it’s a time machine (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mysterious Skin). You’re drawn back to the collision between child and adulthood and face those often daunting realities that inform who we are. The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s awareness of the teenage experience plants it firmly amongst those films done right.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a shy loner reserved to blending into the background; when a chance encounter with Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) drag him down the rabbit hole into the full gamut of the teenage experience.
Novelist, writer and director Stephen Chbosky literally authored every element of Perks – from the page to the screen. It’s evident in every spoken word and sweeping gaze of the camera that it’s been made with love for the material. These young people have adulthood thrust upon them and Chbosky doesn’t trivialise the huge obstacles and challenges they’re facing. From spousal and sexual abuse, prejudice according to sexual orientation, bullying – and all of the characters get more than a token experience to define them. Chbosky sees the significance of the catharsis of making it through high school. Chbosky also has a deft technique at showing Charlie’s subjective perspective. His day dreaming, visions of the past and vision under the influence all seamlessly mesh together to allow you to occupy Charlie’s head space.
Lerman’s Charlie is revelatory. Charlie’s an emotionally and mentally wounded young man and Lerman delicately exposes the layers of his experiences that shaped and crafted him. This is a career defining performance from Lerman. Miller bottles that reactionary extravert of a young gay man in dangerous shark infested high school waters. He’s charming, outspoken and emotionally raw. Watson’s Sam is the crush but with the a dimension of desperation to make a life outside of being taken advantage of by sexual predators that have occupied her early teen years. She’s electric in Charlie’s POV. Paul Rudd’s encouraging and sweet English teacher and Joan Cusack’s powerful fleeting moments as Dr Burton stand out from terrific all round supporting cast.
Thanks to the early 90s setting Perks is spoilt with one of the best soundtracks this year. Great tracks from The Smiths, Sonic Youth, New Order, Dexys Midnight Runners and David Bowie compliment Charlie’s on screen journey. The music is a reflection of his friends, encapsulates the emotional tone of the film and the ‘mix-tape’ creating process makes it feels like the characters are fashioning the soundtrack.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a teen film that carries John Hughes’ legacy. These teens aren’t just token projections of high school archetypes – they’re young whole people. Charlie’s world is being shaped by and with the support of his friends in spite of the obstacles that he’s facing. It’s adolescent life, without the gloss but the resonant joy of freeze-framed fist pumps.
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Stephen Chbosky (based on his book)
Starring: Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott