It’s amazing what a change of medium can do to a story, especially in the case of the film adaptation of”The Perks of Being a Wallfower,” which amazingly was written and directed by the man who wrote the acclaimed 1999 novel, Steven Chbosky. The novel, which I finally read a few weeks ago after years of being urged by everyone I knew at college to read it, told the story of a troubled teen named Charlie who learns to deal with his demons thanks to the profound bond he forms with a small group of friends at his Pittsburgh high school in the early ’90s. The book had a profound emotional core that was occasionally undone by some really stiff writing and a clumsy framing device (I still read the whole thing in under 2 hours though). But Chbosky, in his directing debut, has brought his own story to life. “Perks” is a funny, tragic and profoundly moving film, one that can speak volumes not just for current teenagers but for anyone who felt trapped on their own island in high school.
Charlie (an excellent Logan Lerman) is a freshman, and to say he’s nervous about starting high school is an understatement. He’s gone through horrible trauma in his life, specifically the suicide of his best friend and the tragic death of his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey, seen briefly in flashbacks) weigh heavily on him, which makes him a prime target for bullying. He counts down the days to graduation like a prisoner waiting for parole, and the only friend he makes on his first day is the cool English teacher Mr. Anderson (a perfectly cast Paul Rudd). Charlie’s only refuges are the books he reads for extra credit and the mixtapes his older sister Candace (Nina Sobrev) casts off to him. His favorite song is “Awake” by The Smiths, because Morrisey’s unmistakable wail makes him sound like the only person on Earth more alone than Charlie.
Things turn around for Charlie when he meets Sam, (Emma Watson, miles away from Hogwarts and all the better for it) the gorgeous senior girl who immediately steals his heart and her gay, free-spirited stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller, in a lively, hilarious turn). These two immediately take Charlie under their wing, encouraging him to live life to the fullest, and provide him with the first real remnants of friendship he’s seen in a while.
The film is narrated by Charlie through letters he is writing to an unknown recipient, and he is the guide through a tumultuous year where he experiences joy, confusion, heartbreak and all the other obligatory feelings a naive freshman must feel. “Perks” is a great modern story of youthful friendship, showing how important the bonds we make with others can be, while also showing how devastating it can be when those bonds are tested. Charlie’s shyness is slowly broken down by the exuberance Patrick and Sam show. They speed through tunnels in Patrick’s truck, standing up in their seats as the rush of the lights and the stirring anthem of hope and possibility in the wake of despair that is David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts out of the speakers, and participate in performances of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” At first Patrick and Sam pity Charlie because of the sadness that clouds his life, but they toast him for being a “wallflower,” a keen observer and listener. The relationships between these three deepen and change over the course of the movie in a natural way that Chbosky, proving that he’s a much better screenwriter than he is a novelist, fills with a confidence behind the camera and a keen eye for detail in the killer soundtrack (Sonic Youth, Pavement and countless others = music heaven) and in the gallery of fantastic performances from the three leads.
Lerman turns Charlie into a three-dimensional protagonist, not wallowing in despair but being strengthened by it. Even though Charlie’s sense of self improves dramatically thanks to Sam and Patrick, he is still painfully naive about some things, like we all are at 15. He is easily duped into doing drugs. He ignores Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), the girl who genuinely has a crush on him. Instead he falls head-over-heels for Sam (Watson has never been more effortless on-screen, nailing the American accent and the tinges of darkness underneath her beguiling nature), but he doesn’t realize that she doesn’t feel the same way. She’s into pretentious college guys, and has a troubling history of settling for less when it comes to men. Sam isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl under the surface, she’s not a savior. Even the friends we think are perfect have their own problems. Patrick, played by Miller in a brilliant performance that establishes him as an incredibly versatile talent (he was all terror and menace in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) has a secret relationship with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons) that ends in heartbreak; he’s frustrated that the rest of the world isn’t as free as he is. The imperfections of this trio strengthen their bond, but they also provide opportunity for disconnect that can have tragic consequences.
Mr. Anderson says to Charlie early in “Perks” that we “accept the love we think we deserve.” That’s a message that runs through the film, and adds to its power. This film is about the beginning of the journey to happiness, not the end. A devastating secret threatens to undo Charlie permanently, showing he still has a long way to go to fully heal. But friendship is the key to his salvation. I think “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will endure because that core lesson applies to everyone; it more than transcends its high school setting. When Bowie sings “we can be heroes, just for one day” through that Pittsburgh tunnel, it carries with it all the hope that Charlie and co. strive for. With the strengthening of an already powerful story, Steven Chbosky has created something truly rare: a movie that deserves to be as beloved as the book it is based on.