Late Thursday evening I am driven to drafting I don't know how many words about a seemingly straight forward adaptation of a classic young adult novel, still internally conflicted, questioning a reaction that forces my critical instincts aside in favor of an immediately emotional response. I am asking myself whether a film is striking me in the gut because of where I am personally at emotionally or whether there is some invisible strength to the work in question, a kind of stealth psychological combat that trumps regular rules of artistry. I am asking myself whether Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower is actually an accomplished work or just a great example of the way film can transcend typical responses to become something personal and universal all at once.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower the novel is a narrative unfolded in letters exchanged between Charlie, our fractured protagonist, and an anonymous friend. The Perks of Being a Wallflower the film maintains elements of that structure but it's more accurately described as a series of emotional postcards masquerading as a teen drama. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has just returned from a mental exile of sorts when we are introduced to him; he is about to enter into that Vietnam of pubescence called high school and he is understandably worried, both because of his precarious mental state and because he's a smart kid and therefore realizes high school is only the best time of your life if you're looking back on it with regret and several decades of alcohol and failure saturated nostalgia. Because of that up close and personal emotional perspective, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is able to achieve a special kind of filmic awareness, a teflon coating that deflects typical accusations of melodrama and heavy handedness because as far as Charlie, the person, is concerned, this really is all a life and death situation, this really is the possible end of the universe.
But Charlie's salvation comes not from some kind of ugly duck transformation into an emissary of academic cool or the carpe diem regurgitations of a trustworthy elder (though aspects of both those tropes appear in small doses) but from the discovery of a cadre of friends he never thought he would have. At the forefront are Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), a stepbrother/sister duo who operate on the fringes of the social food chain of Sam's high school with reputations as a former "slut" and a current queer/fag/homo/fruit/etc. To Charlie, they are medication, a way to escape his own head and proof that having problems doesn't have to be a singular exercise.
As far as plot elements go, The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't all that unique, at least not at first. Charlie comes out of his shell and becomes more social, and his new friends discover that there's far more to him than his shy demeanor and quiet ways might suggest. Where The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a film comes into its own is in its absolute commitment to total, unflinching sincerity. Not sincerity in the way of High Art but sincerity in the way of your first crush, an innocent and refreshingly unselfconscious devotion to emotion. It's that element of the film that firmly pulls it out of schlock territory and into some kind of rarified space where it can't help but standout in a climate of jaded, cynical metaness. This film does not deal in the language of mixtapes on actual tape because that is a cool thing one does these days but because this is a film about kids who don't know better, who trade songs and barbs and references because they mean something to them, because they have a weight and a place in the almighty language of growing up.
Because The Perks of Being a Wallflower is so firmly committed to its characters struggles with identity and feeling, its awkwardness turns into an asset rather than an encumbrance. This is a movie that perfectly captures the ages of its characters because it doesn't appear to be trying to do that. It is goofy, and stilted, and gangly and that's okay. It is a shot across the bow of irony, a victory for The New Sincerity that says it's okay to be unsure of yourself, that it's okay to be damaged and aware of it, that it's okay to not know how to communicate your affection and care to those you love. That struck me in a way I can't effectively translate to text, it affected me through emotional hiccups and a weight in my throat and a sense that I'm part of a generation that can't communicate itself. We're doomed in that sense, raised by parents who couldn't clarify their emotions and problems and left us erecting defenses built around shutting emotion out with artificiality, of fake passions and desires. But for the generation The Perks of Being a Wallflower is reaching out to, it's not too late.
It sounds silly to say a teen drama has that kind of potential, but it's true. Films like this aren't meant to be studied or broken down but experienced, preferably in a vulnerable emotional state where defenses are lowered and you just let what happens happen. And afterwards the key is to keep that going, to ride some wave of openness, to disclose what you're feeling, whether to yourself or someone you trust. Which is why this is less a review than a documentation of how a film I expected to maybe enjoy but more than likely be disappointed by turned out to be something different. I can't say it will do the same for you– it probably won't unless you're likewise in the right state of mind for it, or at the right age for its message to ring especially true. Yet I recommend it all the less, for putting itself out there and carving out infinite moments even if they're only infinite for a select few.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter@Nick_Hanover