Friday, September 28, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Enchanting coming-of-age drama

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for drug and alcohol use, sexual candor and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Judging by the number of perceptive, achingly poignant high school misfit dramas produced over the years, being unpopular must’ve been a whole lot more popular than it seemed at the time.

After unknowingly devouring some marijuana-laced brownies, Charlie (Logan Lerman,
center) unintentionally becomes the hilarious star of his first party. But new friends
Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) ignore this opportunity to humiliate him,
instead taking care to ensure that Charlie survives the experience with his dignity
(mostly) intact.
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, published in 1999, has sold more than a million copies and become something of a modern Catcher in the Rye (an earlier classic, perhaps not coincidentally, said to be a favorite of Chbosky’s young protagonist). Perks also has the distinction of being one of the top entries in the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged and banned books, in 2004 and from ’06 through ’09 (where it peaked, at No. 3) ... which, in my mind, merely proves that Chbosky did an excellent job.

Hollywood naturally came calling, but Chbosky held onto his baby, mindful of the many horror stories revolving around successful authors who had seen their popular works destroyed by other hands. Meanwhile, he nurtured his varied talents by scripting the 2005 film adaptation of Rent and creating, writing and producing the 2006-08 TV series Jericho. A decade earlier, he also wrote, directed and produced The Four Corners of Nowhere, a little-seen 1995 indie film which I suspect is about to be rescued from obscurity.

Point being, Chbosky earned the right to script and direct Perks, and has done a commendable job. His angst-ridden saga of emotional isolation is well cast, impeccably acted, sensitively directed and — no surprise here — impressively faithful to the book. The film will be embraced both by young readers who devoured the epistolary novel, and by older movie fans who remember seeing themselves in John Hughes’ equally insightful teen dramas of the late 1980s (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and others).

Perks is, in short, destined to become one of the defining teen dramas of the early 21st century.

The year is 1991, as the precocious but socially awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman) begins his first morning as a freshman at Pittsburgh’s Mill Grove High School. He arrives in quiet terror, already counting down the days until he can flee as a graduating senior.

He’s smart and perceptive, easily able to answer his English teacher’s introductory questions ... but only privately, in his opened notebook, rather than risking peer censure by raising his hand and branding himself a teacher’s pet. But the instructor, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), notices; a tentative bond is formed.

Charlie is damaged goods, carrying considerable pain and a vague reference to having spent time in a “mental hospital.” He confides these fears, along with his hopes and longings, in lengthy letters written to an anonymous person he’s never met. (These letters are the means by which Chbosky’s book unfolds.)

Despite terminal shyness and an utter inability to cultivate any friends, Charlie gamely shows up at the essential high school rituals, where he quietly tries to blend into the background. We get a vague sense that he “tries” in this fashion not because of personal desire, but more to satisfy his well-meaning parents (Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh) and older sister, Candace (Nina Dobrev), who seem unusually concerned about him.

Charlie finally makes a connection at a high school football game, when he recognizes a boisterous fan as Patrick (Ezra Miller), the flamboyant slacker who made such an impression in shop class. Patrick, naturally friendly, invites Charlie to sit alongside; they’re soon joined by Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson).

Sam, who doesn’t miss much, recognizes that Charlie lacks friends; during an unguarded moment, he also acknowledges a recent tragedy that has contributed to the cloud of despair that seems to hover nearby, waiting to envelop him. Despite being seniors, Patrick and Sam therefore welcome Charlie into their gang, which the coquettish Sam dubs “the island of misfit toys.”

This group includes Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a bossy, self-professed Goth Buddhist punk; Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), who adores Mary Elizabeth and likes to shoplift jeans; Bob (Adam Hagenbuch), purveyor of marijuana-laced brownies; and Craig (Reece Thompson), the focus of Sam’s romantic attention. They’re all outcasts themselves, having perfected the art of not giving a damn, and therefore less apt to be targeted for humiliation at the hands of the usual school bullies and contemptuous snots.

But each of Charlie’s new friends carries secrets and comes with emotionally crippling baggage. We viewers get the message first, but Charlie gradually perceives the same: He’s by no means the only oddball in the world. This welcoming brood is nothing but misfit toys.

Although all three leads are sensational, Watson is positively luminescent. The girl we watched grow up as Hermione Granger is a thoughtful, articulate, talented and impressively discerning actress. On a superficial level, Watson’s Sam is radiant, flirty and sensual: the epitome of the “perfect girl” Chbosky envisioned, with whom Charlie naturally falls in love. How could he not?

But Sam is far deeper than her surface wild child; she perceives Charlie’s infatuation but does not betray it. She also has a tempestuous, even scandalous past, the details of which have scarred her badly ... and, as the story progresses, Watson’s expressive features reveal the degree to which each incident left Sam a bit more fragmented. And although she has fought through the misery, in order to manifest the free-spirited sophisticate who delights her peers, the effort has cost her. We see it in Watson’s eyes, particularly during her scenes with Charlie.

It’s stunning, really, because we can almost read Sam’s thoughts, from one moment to the next. Watson is that good.

Miller’s Patrick is the ostentatious yin to Charlie’s repressed yang: strong, self-assured and loyal to the core. He’s the guy who will scorn convention in favor of sticking up for an underdog: No surprise, then, that Patrick is the first to embrace Charlie’s presence. Miller truly seizes the moment — and the film, at times — by making his character so much larger than life: the smart-ass class clown.

Patrick also is gay and proud of it: a hazardous lifestyle choice, in 1991 Pittsburgh. And this, of course, plays to what remains concealed beneath the carefree extrovert he shows the world. Even Patrick has his buttons, which dare not be pushed, and the lines that should not be crossed. No surprise, as well, that he ultimately trusts Charlie with such intimate details.

Despite being surrounded by such scene-stealers, Lerman successfully holds focus, in part because he’s so adept at conveying Charlie’s complex personality. At first, Charlie is little more than the cork bobbing to the actions of his new friends: the naïf acted upon by everybody else. Eventually, though, as his confidence grows, he becomes brave enough for modest efforts at independent thought and behavior.

Whitman, all growed up after kid roles in One Fine Day and Hope Floats, and regular stints on TV series such as Chicago Hope and Arrested Development, is a hoot as the group control freak: the girl who uses anger as a coping mechanism to conceal her own loneliness.

Chbosky covers myriad sidebar issues, all of which play a role in Charlie’s eventual discovery of self. He’s genuinely concerned that his sister’s boyfriend — Nicholas Braun, as “Ponytail Derek” — seems to be physically abusing her. Back in English class, after initial reluctance, Charlie develops a strong rapport with Mr. Anderson, who provides a series of inspirational books as extra-credit assignments: The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Walden and many others.

Rudd, too frequently slumming in moron comedies, delivers a finely modulated performance here, making Mr. Anderson the teacher we’d all love to have.

Everybody has the most fun with the audience-participation “floor show” enhancement to the nearby Dormont Hollywood Theater’s midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Patrick, Sam and Mary Elizabeth enthusiastically — and quite salaciously — mimicking the on-screen action.

As Hughes did with his 1980s teen fables, Chbosky takes great care with his rock- and pop-inflected score, assembling a mix-tape Top 10 of emotional anthems such as “Asleep” (The Smiths), “Come On Eileen” (Dexy’s Midnight Runners), “Dear God” (XTC) and “Teenage Riot” (Sonic Youth). There’s also the matter of what Sam calls “the tunnel song,” first heard as she hurtles through Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Tunnel, while standing in the back of a pickup truck: the film’s most breathtakingly iconic, music-and-images moment.

If that moment doesn’t make your blood race — indeed, if many of this film’s moments don’t do the same — then you obviously weren’t a wallflower.

Your loss, apparently.

No comments:

Post a Comment