Saturday, February 16, 2013

Catching Up: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

 3.5 / 5 

How quick we are to idealize our past.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower never comes right out and says it, but it's set in the very early 1990s -- before cell phones and smart phones, before the Internet, when if someone told you, "Stay away for a little while," you had two choices: obsess over it or stay away for a little while.

Clearly, the movie thinks this was a much better choice than poring over Facebook or sending endless text messages, and it's certainly more cinematic.  The only real option back then was to pine away and feel sorry for yourself, and even if it seemed horrible at the time, now it looks sweet and low-tech, resulting in a lyrical melancholy that pervades The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a movie that in many ways resembles Say Anything, the finest of the 1980s teen comedies.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a freshman, which is a particularly hellish fate for someone with as many emotions as Charlie has.  He's been going through a difficult time, and throughout the movie we learn more and more about what happened to him and why it made him such an alleged wallflower.

But wallflowers don't make particularly compelling entertainment, and the fact is, Charlie may be a little unsure of himself, which is natural for a 15-year-old boy, but he's far from a shrinking violet.  Just a few weeks into the school year, he introduces himself to the brother-sister team of Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), beautiful kids both but ever so slightly eccentric.

Still, they're much more popular than Logan, and they're both seniors, which means that just as Charlie's high-school life is beginning, theirs is drawing to a close.  Charlie's increasingly close friendship with them, and their own circle of mixed-up friends, is the backbone for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The movie also has some brief roles for adults, none of whom are particularly notable except, perhaps, Charlie's English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who sees the boy's potential despite his shy tendencies, and encourages him to pursue his ambition to be a writer.

The movie plays out more in a series of vignettes than in a straight storyline, underscoring the simultaneous difficulty and success writer-director Stephen Chbosky has in adapting his own epistolary novel, which has Charlie recounting incidents of his first year in high school to an unknown recipient.  On the page, it was engrossing, on the screen it works less well, and throughout most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the letter-writing idea is shunted aside.

The great success of the film is less in its meandering screenplay than in the two stellar central performances by Lerman and Watson as a boy and girl with a deep connection but whose age will keep them apart.  They know each other well -- but, then, how well can a freshman understand the yearnings and life lessons of someone who has already lived through the next three years?  Lerman captures the tenuousness well; he's an affable, sweet actor.  Watson puts on a convincing enough American accent and overcomes the tendency toward effusive bossiness that made her last few Harry Potter outings a bit obnoxious.

The key note that The Perks of Being a Wallflower hits sourly is the character of Patrick, an openly gay teen who comes across as brash, overbearing and too frivolous.  The movie seems to forget the reality of life in 1991, of AIDS and societal disapproval; twenty years on, we live in a different time, but Perks could have used Patrick as a reminder of how far we've come.

What Perks gets very right is the wistful sadness of being a teenager, of feeling disconnected and unsure.  It beautifully captures the way Charlie watches and learns that people are not always honorable, that relationships are not always easy, and that life is going to be harder than he thinks -- but it's a lot less awful when set to the beat of David Bowie's "Heroes."

No comments:

Post a Comment