Published on: November 2, 2012
There is an intriguing danger associated with an author adapting their own book for the screen. On one hand, there is a significant advantage in allowing an artist a chance to create their own vision, but on the other hand, an author can easily fail to produce a satisfactory adaptation if they are not familiar enough with the medium.
The risk was especially high with Stephen Chbosky, who has, in fact, had experience with visual media, but his previous mainstream efforts- the film adaptation of RENT and the short-lived CBS drama Jericho- were not popular or poorly reviewed upon release. However, permitting Chbosky to write and direct an adaptation of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was ultimately worth the risk; Chbosky made the novel into a surprisingly entertaining and insightful film that defies its genre and allows the audience to enjoy the talent and range of its young lead actors.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is not looking forward to his first day of high school. He worries primarily that he will not make any friends. Sure enough, high school is everything he expected, and the only friend he makes his first day is his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). After some time, he begins to hang out with a flamboyant and energetic senior from his shop class named Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his attractive half-sister Sam (Emma Watson), also a senior, on whom Charlie quickly develops a crush. At a party, Charlie reveals some darkness from his past to the dynamic duo, and they graciously welcome him into their group of friends. However, love does tend to come in triangles, and throughout the school year their friendships are tested.
It is not too much trouble to convince anybody that going to see Emma Watson in something is a good idea. She, Miller, and Lerman play off each other perfectly, and I have no complaints there. The more important thing to address is the soundtrack; it is the only thing aside from car models that gives us a hint as to what time period the film takes place. The songs mostly come from the late 1980’s, and are themselves often a subject of discussion between the three protagonists. Due to their taste in “good music,” the trio feels out of place, something with which many kids today can relate. Outside of the chosen songs are a couple numbers from the ever-popular Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which our protagonists appear as members of a shadow cast at several points throughout the film.
I expected the film to lean heavily on the typical romantic teenage ‘dramedy’ clichés. I found, however, that Perks manages to defy the stereotypes it surrounds itself with through self-satirization but still maintaining a respect for the journeys of each character. Much of the humor in the film comes from the strangely quick ways the characters find themselves screwing up socially. For instance, Charlie suddenly finds himself the boyfriend of someone he does not like very much. In a typical film of the romantic comedy genre, such a situation would be the foundation for the entire movie, eventually ending with formulaic and achingly saccharine lessons about true love. Here, contrarily, is a film that embraces its dark side. The film takes a spin on the typical ‘secretly gay football player’-construct by weaving an emotionally engaging and somewhat devastating sub-plot.
Because it will go wherever its subject matter takes it, Perks is not really about love specifically. Like When Harry Met Sally, the focus here is on relationships in general in the much broader spectrum. Perks blurs the lines between familial, friendly and romantic love and subtly, but beautifully, explores the connection between faith in religion and faith in people.
At the same time, the film manages to not take itself too seriously. It does not impress heavy-handed lessons about individuality onto the audience. Instead of Charlie realizing that nobody deserves to suffer, he simply realizes that everybody does suffer and that the antidote is never simple. The spirit of youth, according to Perks, is the spirit of all mankind, and that sentiment feels very real and is one of the few breaths of fresh air one can get in a tired genre like romance. I’m afraid to speak too soon because of all the highly anticipated films to be released in the next couple months, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower might just be the best movie of the year.