MOVIE REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower



According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the one of the definitions for term "wallflower" briefly states that it is "a person who from shyness or unpopularity remains on the sidelines of a social activity."  While far from a condemnation, that doesn't sound too sunny.  From a more casual source, the Urban Dictionary website, one of their unofficial definitions softens the blow describing:

"A person, usually in high school, who sees everything and knows everything that's going on but doesn't say a word. They aren't loners. They are shy and don't choose to be in the mix of things. A person nobody pays attention to, and fades into the background, but are really genuine and interesting people if you take the time to get to know them."

That description washes the bitter taste down better.  As you can guess from the title of the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we are going to get see the "genuine and interesting" side to a few high school wallflowers.  Directed by first-time filmmaker Stephen Chbosky and adapted from his successful and pop culture reference-filled 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the most involving and unique movies about high school you will ever see.  For 2012, so far, it is one of the best films of the rapidly progressing year.

Taking place in an undetermined time that feels like the early 1990s, when people still made cassette mix-tapes for their friends on the cusp of the Seattle alternative rock movement and longed for the punk rock of the decade before, we are introduced to a good Catholic family in Pittsburgh, headed by a pair of normal-looking parents (TV standbys Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott).  The youngest of their three kids, the introverted Charlie (Logan Lerman of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), is beginning his first day of high school and laments the 1300+ remaining days of the high school experience.

Charlie's parents are busy, his big sister (Nina Dobrev of TV's The Vampire Diaries) is a senior with her own scene, and his big brother is away on a star football scholarship to Penn State.  He's the least in every category and carries the additional baggage of losing his only good friend to suicide a few months prior to freshman year.  In his first day, the only "friend" he makes is the English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who's impressed with his knowledge and writing.  Soon, Mr. Anderson spurs Charlie's appetite for reading and writing with side assignments.

Through his observations as the wallflower on the outside looking in, he gravitates to a flamboyant class clown senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller of We Need to Talk About Kevin).  The welcoming Patrick introduces him to his casual party scene, his equally expressive step-sister confidant Sam (Harry Potter's Emma Watson), and their weird little group (which includes Mae Whitman, who's a long way from her little daughter roles from Independence Day and Hope Floats).  Patrick quickly fits right into their world of intellectual appreciation, obscure music tastes, admiration of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the occasional casual drug use.  Finally, Charlie belongs to something and is surrounded by people that respect and inspire him.  His anonymous letter-writing becomes his outlet and diary to chronicle this first year of high school.  Slowly but surely, Charlie comes out of his shell more and more to blossom into his own man as the film transpires.

The three young lead performances are phenomenal and the core of the film. The role that jumps off the screen at the beginning of the film is Ezra Miller's.  At 20, his talent and trouble-making energy, on and off screen, has now commanded my attention.  I missed his murderous troubled teen from last year's We Need to Talk About Kevin alongside Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, but I will now be seeking it out.  He needs a lead movie role that can match his personality.  

In her first American movie, Emma Watson (the elder veteran at 22 years old) does a luminous job as the muse to Charlie's blossoming.  While it's hard to remove her from her decade of British childhood wizardry, if she keeps taking on challenging roles like this, we will all begin to look past that and consider her a serious actress.  I, for one, am confident she'll get there.

Finally, fellow 20-year-old Logan Lerman carries the film as its narrator and focal point-of-view.  As a kid who needs as much help as he does a friend, Lerman tackles the conflict that makes Charlie an introvert of the most genuine and interesting variety from our opening definitions.  Showing far more craft and talent than his kid roles of Percy Jackson, Hoot, and The Three Musketeers, Logan might be the most impressive of the entire trio.  Keep an eye on all three of these excellent young performers.

The growth of our lead character is not an easy path.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, quite possibly, the heaviest PG-13 movie I've ever seen, and it's not because of sex or violence like other envelope-pushing PG-13 films.  The layers and depths of the personal and social issues our main characters deal with make for very non-John Hughes high school material of which most people are used to seeing, even in light homages like Easy A.  

There's a lot going on and I won't go into spoiling specifics to ruin this movie's beauty, but I'll reassure you that the troublesome moments are buoyed and balanced by good cheer.  Even if you weren't the wallflower of your high school years, I'm almost positive you will find something to gravitate to in a private moment of remembrance from this film.

In not following the status quo of most high school movie tendencies and for being more honest than angst-ridden, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an extremely soulful and satisfying challenge for the normally fluffy or unrealistic high school setting of movies.  Even though the main awards season is still a month away, I'm not afraid to call this little film one of the best movies I will see this year.  Go ahead and call me weird for liking it, but this one really impressed me.  If you can find it in a little indie theater, seek it out.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF WALLFLOWER-- See above.  The movie nails delivering a working and visual portrait of a few true wallflowers and why it's not so bad to be one of those passive and interesting observers.

LESSON #2: FINDING PEOPLE WHO WILL LISTEN AND UNDERSTAND-- I could make this lesson more vague by saying "finding good friends," but it's more important to list those additional qualifiers of listening and understanding.  Having people around you is fine and one level friendship, but finding a select few who truly will listen when you need them to and also those that understand and get you, flaws and all, is a far greater level of friendship.

LESSON #3: THE PLIGHT OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL YEARS-- This lesson could get its own essay paper and could write different ones for every high school movie.  The awkward steps and difficult soul-searching of one's high school years, matched by the fleeting moments of success, love, and joy, are something we all had to experience and experienced differently.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower shares a look at many elements of this plight through Charlie, Patrick, and Sam.

LESSON #4: WE ACCEPT THE LOVE WE THINK WE DESERVE-- This is an absolute gem of a quote from both the book and the movie.  So often, when we are teens, we don't quite see the world for its adult truths.  Not all love is first-love bliss and never-ending, stars-aligned happiness  Some people settle for less than bliss.  Some people always seem to be with the wrong person.  From there, there's truth to saying this quote on the subject.  Our goal should be improve our self-concept, self-esteem, and, most importantly, our self-worth so that the love we do accept is not just deserved, but matching of those high personal standards.