The Perks of Being A Wallflower – review

Stephen Chbosky adapts his own cult teenage novel for the big screen, bringing Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson along for the awkward, self-aware ride.

October 4, 2012 8:10 am 0 comments
The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Re-encountering a prominent feature of your adolescence can be a sad and strange thing. Like meeting an important old friend and realising you have nothing left to say to one another, hearing that song, or re-reading the book your teenage self fawned over is often chastening. Things change, and the person you were can suddenly appear alien. Similarly, finding these cherished memories translated in to something else – from comic to screen, from Shakespeare’s Globe to an American High School, from Cohen and Buckley to Alexandra Burke – is usually annoying, if not completely disastrous.

Stephen Chbosky has taken the unusual step of adapting his own novel ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’ for the big screen; moreover, he has used this project to make his directorial bow. Whether this says ‘writer keeping control of his work’ or ‘project no one else wants’ is debatable. One thing is certain, however; in his hands, the film remains in close contact with its source material, unlike many a literary adaptation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), an awkward, introverted teen beginning his freshman year of high school, slowly making friends and quickly falling in love. He’s sensitive; a thinker with a love for music and literature which enables him to settle in to a new group of similarly minded, though much more extroverted, friends. His negotiations with this new life and his own troubling past form the backbone of a film essentially about being young.

Casting is always going to be the primary concern of a film like this. With the mental images of legions of fans to satisfy, Perks got two out of three right. Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Lightning Thief) may be a little too old and a little too handsome to make Charlie’s emotional openness stand out as a reason to be loved; but his quiet, hesitant performance and friendly likeability are enough to carry the act. Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) plays an energetic, perhaps overly-camp, Patrick, but he is the driving force behind the film and the major source of humour and lightness, even when plot revelations begin to darken the tone.

Emma Watson is of course the major draw, in what has been seen as her move away from Hermione – despite again playing the female third of a gang fronted by an emotionally damaged teenage boy. Her performance as Sam isn’t great, with a flat American accent and stilted emotional engagement with the other actors. It felt like she was holding back when the character demands a freedom and energy that Watson wasn’t up to, making it slightly harder to accept Charlie’s adolescent infatuation with her.

Chbosky hasn’t tried anything difficult here, and in many ways this resembles the classic high school coming-of-age movies of the eighties and nineties. Not until the denouement’s flashbacks, blackouts and fractured editing, depicting Charlie’s sudden unravelling, does the film do anything more than tell a simple story in a simple manner. Even the novel’s notable structure, comprising of letters Charlie sends to an unnamed friend, features only loosely and infrequently.

There are two important results of this: some aspects of the plot have been fleshed out to make sense visually of what Charlie has described in the novel; adding weight but removing some of the heart and closeness key to the appeal of both book and film.

Secondly, some of the dialogue is, frankly, toe-curling. What comes personally and privately from Charlie in the novel is transferred dismally into real-time speech; Watson’s surprised exclamation that, like Charlie, she “loves The Smiths!” or their agreement that “everything sounds better on vinyl” sound mawkish and sentimental, with an embarrassing faux-hipster twinge.

Moments like this somewhat spoil an otherwise solid, decent adaptation to film of a better book. Unlike many high-school movies, this one is at least honest in its idioms and its characters: Patrick is coarse and funny; Sam has a reputation for drinking and sleeping around. Chbosky hasn’t tried to hide the realities of modern teenage life, nor exploited them, and doesn’t try to say much more than what growing up can be like. He does this with cinematic simplicity and a strong soundtrack, befitting a film about teenage New Romantics. Perhaps a little sluggish in setting the scene, the second act is a much tighter and more interesting affair, which gradually ramps up the tensions surrounding Charlie’s relationships and teases at the secrets lurking beneath his quiet exterior.

Perks isn’t perfect and it feels dated for a new film, lacking the visual punch or quirkiness of, say, Moonrise Kingdom or Submarine. It stays as true to the story as it can, but as is so often the case, pales in comparison to the novel, and will surely not have the same level of impassioned following. For those who haven’t read the book, Perks won’t offer much that you haven’t seen before.

For those who have; it isn’t right. But it could have been so much worse.

What do you think?

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