Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The phrase “kids these days” should be obsolete. The fact is, each generation, much like the ones before it, is exposed to the same joys and anxieties of adolescence. The times may change, but at their essence, the kids remain the same. The individuals differ, but the collective experience endures. Stephen Chbosky, a native of Upper St. Clair in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, provided his own firsthand account in the 90s literary touchstone, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Thirteen years later, he has transposed his narrative for cinema, in a rare case of an author taking the directorial reigns of his own adapted work. Such a choice is undoubtedly risky, but Chbosky’s debut proves to be worthwhile, creating a highly nostalgic ode to adolescence, in all of its hopes, fears and desires.

The wallflower in question is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a bright lad whose first day of high school is upon him. Something of a loner wrestling with personal demons, Charlie finds it difficult making friends, and at best, his family’s support is only peripheral. When he falls into the company of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), step siblings who hang on the fringes of high school popularity, he quickly finds his niche. The rest of the film follows Charlie through his year, from his literary camaraderie with his English teacher (a subdued but effective Paul Rudd), and his trials through love and loss. If there is a flaw to the film, there tends to be some indecision on the focus on plot or story. Charlie’s internal conflict is a key ingredient to the overall arc of the film, but it occasionally loses focus in the favor of some of the films more episodic tangents. Nevertheless, the overall tone remains a constant, largely due to the tremendous work from the young cast. As the step siblings, both Miller and Watson display amiable characteristics between each other, in addition to tenderness and solemnity in private. Lerman is the standout, whose Charlie gradually comes out of his shell, but hides a tempest of guilt inside.

As a first time director, Chbosky shows some surprising strength in making his story work for cinematic purposes. He occasionally dabbles in conventional techniques, such as voiceover narration, but given that such elements were necessary in his book, they work well enough here. A curious glow permeates much of the photography, especially the interiors, which suggest the power of memory, as if an older Charlie is remembering his past. What distinguishes Chbosky’s film is his remarkable attention to editing, something that feels second handed in most other high school tales. From goofy LSD trips to the recurring memories of Charlie’s past, editorial plays an integral role and proves that Chbosky’s images speak for his prose. Adding an evocative soundtrack is also an obligatory element to high school films, but Chbosky’s selections play key roles in the development of the narrative, rather than nostalgic background noise.

Now, an admission: I have an inbred bias when it comes to this film, for the setting of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is essentially my home. The suburbs, the restaurants, the cityscapes, the high school atmospheres may not be yours, but they were all very much mine. From the heights of Mount Washington to the bowels of the home basement, Chbosky gets all of the crucial visuals absolutely right, immediately solidifying the nostalgia this film provokes. The era may be the early 90s, but I couldn’t help but recall my own high school odysseys from less than five years ago. The story feels deeply personal to me, despite the fact that it isn’t mine. I cannot say that others, especially outside Pittsburgh, will feel the same way, but it enhanced my own viewing experience tremendously. Despite this favoritism on my part, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is nevertheless one of the strongest and most mature looks at high school life on film in years, worthy of standing with resonant touchstones like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. Adolescence will always be cyclical through the decades, and the trials and tribulations will endure. Children will never stop growing up.

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~ by romancinema on September 28, 2012.

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