Monday, October 22, 2012
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Reviewed: 29 September 2012
Dear Mr. Stephen Chbosky,
Hello. I’m James. I missed out on the craze surrounding the publication of your novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in 1999. But as a high school English teacher, I simply cannot avoid it now. Your book exploded in my classroom this past month, and I have lots of juniors in AP Literature who have read or are reading it. I just finished reading it myself. With the novel’s epistolary form and its echoes of Holden Caulfield, your literary voice comes across as nakedly honest and sincere.
I saw the film based on your screenplay of your novel, and as the film’s director, you confidently explore the teenage years of the main character Charlie and how his friends save his life. You’re a first-time director, but I wouldn’t have known it from this film. Your camera moves with a sure hand, and you’re comfortable enough to let scenes play out for seven or eight minutes without breaking them. In the hands of a different director, such scenes could have been reduced to superficial montages set to splashy soundtrack music. Instead, you’ve crafted a personal and affecting film that takes its time telling the story, buoyed by music and the strength of its lead performances. It feels like the film version of a confidently made mix tape.
Your characters Charlie (Logan Lerman), Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson) form a makeshift family. You brilliantly capture the awkwardness of freshman year when Charlie looks for a place to sit in the cafeteria and at Friday night football games. When I was in high school, a senior knowing a freshman’s name was epic, and your film is about that importance: the power of simply being noticed. Charlie’s acceptance by the older kids changes his life. Charlie’s decision to restart his life and stop being a wallflower lead to his catharsis. By leaving the wall, he takes risks and puts himself out there to be hurt and to be loved. Charlie’s journey is not always in a linear path, and his participation in the lives around him involves potential pain.
The character of Sam jolts Charlie. In the opening scenes, you film Watson in close-ups with a nimbus of ethereal light to give Charlie’s perspective on this beautiful, troubled older girl. On a stylishly shot trip through the tunnels before emerging magnificently in the center of Pittsburgh, Charlie finds himself falling for Sam as she dances in the back seat of the truck, wind flying through her hair. College looms for the seniors. Relationships come together and fall apart. “Nightswimming” might as well be playing, with Michael Stipe crooning, “September is coming soon.”
A high school film that avoids the stale and condescending trappings of the genre, your film shows Charlie’s sensitive connection with a well-meaning English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), the allure of attending a party with older kids (and maybe getting into some trouble), and the emotional complications of a world without cell phones and instant communication. “Where did you go last night?” one character asks. “I couldn’t find you!” You’re effectively reminding me of the tremulousness of connection and the headache of fitting everything in its right place. A fight in a cafeteria has scary power because it’s a fight in a public arena with hundreds of peers as witnesses. A first break-up conversation goes poorly and puts a character’s heart on display for everyone to see. A holiday gift-giving moment has monumental significance, as gifts for friends have untold emotional weight with graduation on the horizon. You have picked small incandescent moments and made an entire film of them.
There are a few moments where your film struggles in its handling of Charlie’s family, and two serious revelations about Charlie’s character are handled clumsily. A relationship between Patrick and another main character never reaches a satisfying resolution. You missed the opportunity to make Charlie’s family life more richly developed; Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh underplay his parents, and he has two loving older siblings who are nearly nonexistent in the film. The soundtrack does not layer the typical early nineties fare, but the film sounds like what I heard on the radio during that time. Overall, despite its occasional stumble, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” delivers an intimate portrait of these young people in a time of change.
In the first minute, Emma Watson proves that she’s more than just a typecast Hermione Granger. Her performance is a highlight; she projects a melancholy and world-weariness to Sam, as well as a sense of unease that Watson shows through her body language and the way that she listens. You have helped her craft a subtle and compelling character. Also, Ezra Miller shows remarkable range in this role, especially considering his recent chilling turn in the drama “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” The casting in general is on the mark, and Logan Lerman carries the film solidly as Charlie.
Mr. Chbosky, I can tell that you care tremendously about your story and have created a film of great power and humor. Watching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” felt like listening to an intimate mix tape with its sense of balance and emotion. It got me thinking of mix tapes and parties and football bleachers. I think that my mix tape for you would include fall and winter kinds of songs from 1994-1996, my sophomore through senior year. Amidst Nirvana and U2, Tears for Fears and Stealers Wheel, Alanis Morissette and Oasis, I would close my mix with the song “Find the River” by R.E.M. from “Automatic for the People.” The lyrics “Leave the road and memorize/ This life that pass before your eyes/ Nothing is going my way…Pick up here and chase the ride/ The river empties to the tide/ All of this is coming your way” echo Charlie’s journey in your book, and now your film, as he navigates through life. I want to thank you for filling your film with quiet moments and strong performances. Charlie’s life stops and starts, and he meanders towards friendship and peace with nothing and everything going his way, concurrently.