Misfits all over the world have taken comfort in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel chronicling self-professed “wallflower” Charlie after a nervous breakdown in his freshman year of high school. It’s been praised and banned for its honest look at issues that are often swept under the rug, such as depression, teen sexuality, and alcohol and drug use. Now, the teens of a later generation can find solace in the film version, carefully brought to the screen by the author himself.
As a novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is atmospheric and very much a product of its time. Outcasts listened to The Smiths at dimly lit house parties and read The Catcher in the Rye time and again. The movie brings this snapshot of an era to life carefully, and the period details are subtle enough to enhance rather than distract. The soundtrack, too, deserves praise; it captures the film’s highest highs and lowest lows, giving even the ordinary moments a touch of extraordinary. (Though it’s hard to believe a girl as pre-hipster era hipster as Sam wouldn’t recognize David Bowie.) In fact, it’s so understated in its setting that it can be jarring when characters cheer over a 1300 on the SAT.
But the sharp, intelligent, impulsive, confused, and above all else deeply human characters are what give the film heart. The three at the center drive its soul: Sam (Emma Watson), who seems perpetually lit by a soft glow but surrounded by shadows; Patrick (Ezra Miller), both a bitter funnyman and a flamboyant queen with an unguarded heart; and Charlie (Logan Lerman), who can’t accept his own happiness but is more than willing to dole out his own love.
Watson, an internationally recognized teen superstar, has definitely succeeded in breaking type. Sam is enigmatic but warm-hearted, hard to read but easy to love. Her smile has the resigned cynicism of a girl who lost her innocent view of the world long ago. Still, her character occasionally feels flat, though this may be a result of the movie’s structure. Charlie is far from a reliable narrator, and his infatuation with Sam makes it harder for him, and by extension viewers, to see her flaws; we see her as he sees her, through filters of love and respect, with faults excluded. This makes some of her decisions difficult to understand, as viewers aren’t privy to her thoughts.
Miller and Lerman both shine, giving their characters incredible depth and intensity. Miller, once again in an eccentric, off-kilter role, keeps Patrick from lapsing into a stereotypical, one-dimensional homosexual. Instead, Patrick is soulful and sympathetic, balancing his campy persona with sarcastic one-liners and witticisms. We see him star in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (corset and heels included), but we also see him staring blankly out a car window, hands tightening on the steering wheel as he runs out of distractions from his melancholy. When Patrick’s heart breaks, so do ours.
Lerman excels at giving Charlie unexpected complexities. Charlie is quiet, but not boring—a wallflower, as the title says. We want to understand how he sees the world, what makes him tick—and that is how we see the world, as the movie is shot from his perspective. His angsts are the heart of the film, from nightmares about his dead aunt to his painful pining for Sam. A character like Charlie demands a deft touch, and Lerman delivers. Subtle and nuanced, he shows us what an introvert is: not someone with less of a personality, but someone less inclined to reveal it. Earnest and nervous, he stands out next to Watson and Miller—which is no small task.
That’s not to say the movie is perfect. Aside from the core three, other characters are rather underdeveloped, and plot threads are woven in, only to be left dangling: Charlie’s relationship with his sister, and hers with her boyfriend; Sam’s referenced, but never explained, fraught relationship with a friend; and Charlie’s parents, who seem practically non-existent. Still, Watson, Miller, and Lerman are more than enough to carry the film through. The film tackles heavy topics, but that doesn’t mean it’s cliché; in fact, it carries them off better than many other movies. And it does something more than most teen movies these days: it inspires. When Charlie throws his arms out, seemingly floating in the night air, it’s poetic enough to make his words seem profound. “We are infinite,” indeed.