Appointing authors to direct their own material is a risky business, especially when they’ve yet to prove their film-making chops. However, Stephen Chbosky appears to have followed the likes of Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognising Your Saints), with his ultimate authority over the source material compensating for any perceived lack of experience. Under Chbosky’s unexpectedly spry, precocious direction, The Perks of Being a Wallflower eschews years of quirky indie flick formula, delivering one of the most soulfully honest, charming and impeccably acted coming-of-age films in years.
It’s early-90s Pittsburgh, and 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a sweet and smart yet introverted young man, hopelessly trying to traverse the miasmal high school environment, rife with bullying which only further ensnares him inside his shell. It’s evident that a prior trauma of some kind has profoundly changed the course of Charlie’s life, but quite what that is remains up in the air. Nevertheless, things do eventually change for the better when he meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), who take him under their wing, granting him new-found social status and, indeed, a whole new lease on life. While considering the prospect of a romantic relationship with Sam, Charlie again learns what it’s like to have friends he can depend on, but of course, nothing is ever that simple, and Charlie will still have to confront his own neurotic demons.
Yet another film about contemplative high-schoolers and their precious “feelings” could very well be a recipe for mediocrity, yet Chbosky’s source material is of such necessary heart and sharp observance, that he and his splendid cast are quickly able to swat any such allegations away. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the sort of heart-warming, uncommonly honest film about the struggle to belong that it’ll likely even wear down hardened cynics, if not for its brisk, lithe narrative, then its gleefully exuberant style, rapturous soundtrack, and most of all, its outstanding array of performances.
Most fondly remembered as Christian Bale’s son in 3:10 to Yuma – and less favourably as the titular character in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief – Logan Lerman drastically ups his game here as the wounded, delicate wallflower of the film’s name. A more subtle, composed character than the genre typically deals out, Charlie feels real because he’s hormonal but not needlessly melodramatic; his outbursts, especially when given the full context of their making, are powerful expressions of the difficult, confusing period we all live through called adolescence. Though Lerman gets to shine in these more challenging moments, the uplifting ones are no less indicative of his talents; the very fact we care so much about Charlie is equal testament to Chbosky’s sensitive work behind the camera and Lerman’s in front of it.
However, Lerman’s stellar contribution is arguably overshadowed by the outstanding Ezra Miller, who proves an extraordinarily versatile and knowing performer here, following up his awards-worthy turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin with another teen on the fringes, if entirely the opposite of Kevin in terms of mood and temperament. Miller’s vanity-free performance as the flamboyant, fun-loving senior benefits from being fed the majority of the screenplay’s strongest zingers, but his infectiously entertaining screen presence, and the unexpected quandaries of his character makes him every bit as compelling as Charlie.
Completing the trio is Watson’s Sam, surely the most conventional character of the bunch; the quirky, cute, “pixie girl” Charlie pines after. Once we get past the enormous contrivance that a girl so aware and culturally switched-on has never heard David Bowie’s “Heroes” before – for the sake of a framing device – Watson is given the opportunity to at least partly deviate from the predictable schematic many will have already mapped out for her character. Her care-free, fun-loving attitude is brought down to earth by moral flaws and existential doubt over her future, ensuring she is regarded as more than a masturbatory introvert fantasy. Her high school dance sequence set to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” is particularly diverting.
That nagging thread hanging throughout – regarding what caused Charlie’s fractured mental state in the first place – is addressed late in the day, in a dark twist that audiences should nevertheless be swept along by given the relative maturity with which Chbosky handles it. It’s far from an easy subject to discuss in any film, let alone something trying to wring laughs out of its drama, but the shift between tones is gradual and deft, a move that directors far more experienced than Chbosky frequently struggle with. To return from this brink to becoming effortlessly affecting and laugh-out-loud funny once again is little short of a miracle; Chbosky is evidently a director to watch, and this wonderful trio of actors is certainly going places.
A coming-of-age film for the ages, Perks will charm even ardent cynics, with a rousing script, breathless soundtrack, and three stunning performances, particularly from the enormously talented Ezra Miller.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is in cinemas now.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.