Whenever a teen movie proclaims to be real and emotional or in any way authentic, I immediately have my doubts. It very rarely goes well and there are far more cases of the film coming off as weak and childish than there are cases for the other side. Perks of Being a Wallflower, happily, is a win for the latter as it achieves that elusive goal; a teen movie with an adult's brain.
Stephen Chbosky has adapted his own book for the screenplay and this is easily the film's biggest strength. Chbosky's understanding of his own material and instinctive understanding of how to show the most he can while saying as little as possible works wonders in making the characters come to life. The story is a slight one, a boy-meets-girl story when it really comes down to it, but Chbosky weaves in themes of death, prejudice and child molestation throughout the film. While this makes the film more complex and thus a lot more interesting to watch, it also has a tendency to overcomplicate things somewhat. In spite of this, Chbosky is able to create a real and interesting matrix of characters who are each different without seeming like that's their only purpose. And in his two lead characters he has constructed something of a marvel. Charlie is withdrawn and scared; a social outcast who would rather blend into the rest of the class than answer a teacher's question or imagine his last day of school to get through each day of his freshman year. He is an enigma when we meet him and he'd like to stay that way. Before he meets Sam. Sam's effervescence forces Charlie out of his shell; a place he's not used to but somewhere he wants to be if it gets him closer to Sam. In one beautiful scene, Charlie takes to the dance floor, forcing one foot to land in front of the other on his way, drawn almost supernaturally out of the comfort of the shadows towards Sam. It's a scene which will resonate with anyone who's ever felt out of place in lights and music and pulsing crowds and it's written with brilliant restraint by Chbosky. The relationship between these two characters is compellingly written and heartbreakingly beautiful at times. Chbosky spends time on his supporting characters as well, with an awkward and frustrating sub-plot between Charlie and punk/Buddhist Mary-Elizabeth and a story of love and rejection with the flamboyant Patrick and his lover-in-denial Brad. These characters could easily crowd out or overshadow the central pair but Chbosky's refusal of cliché and ability to find real emotion within teenage dialogue means that we can't wait to get back to Sam and Charlie's slow, painfully realised relationship. Making the transition from book to screenplay can be difficult, especially if the book's author is unwilling to ruthlessly cut his work down to size, but Stephen Chbosky manages with ease, incorporating most of the book's story as well as leaving time for characters and scenes to breathe.
He fares less well with his direction. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with how Chbosky points a camera, but the occasionally clumsy shot and almost complete lack of dynamic means that the camerawork is mostly stagnant throughout. While the script more than makes up for this, a good DP and some clever camerawork would go a long in taking this film from good to great.
Perks has a fantastic soundtrack, with songs from David Bowie to Crowded House as well as The Smiths, apparently a romantic-comedy must have since (500) Days of Summer set the trend in 2008.
The script and soundtrack are not the only good points to the film and the last comes through the performances. Logan Lerman plays Charlie with just the right mix of unease and naiveté without milking it, steering his character clear of becoming a stereotype. He struggles a little in more overtly emotive moments but he shines in the little things, subtleties and nuance which he uses to make his character a real human being instead of a person on a screen. It's a great performance which easily carries most of the film's plot. But it's Emma Watson who's given the chance to shine here. With Hermione's ghost still looming over her, Watson breaks free completely from her former role which could have easily overshadowed the rest of her career. She is fantastic as Sam; completely desirable and incredibly cool, it's easy to see why Charlie is so instantly smitten with her. But beyond the initial attraction, Watson manages to imbue her character with wonderful depths of emotion which make her character shine all the more. While these parts of her personality can mostly be attributed to Cbosky's script, Watson's ability to encapsulate all of these traits so completely shows just what a powerhouse this star can be in future, more challenging roles. Ezra Miller's "queer as a three dollar bill," Patrick is another character which could so easily have slipped into cliché or patronisation but instead is complex, enthusiastic and the film's comedic hub. Miller is fantastic as his ostentatious counterpart, completely dominating the screen any time he's on it. Scott Pilgrim alumni Mae Whitman and Johnny Simmons do well in their roles as punk, Buddhist mash-up Mary-Elizabeth and jock-with-a-secret Brad respectively. Whitman's role is a little more prevalent thanks to a short-lived but hilariously awkward sub-plot and she does well as Chbosky's version of Overly Attached Girlfriend. Nina Dobrev has a small and mostly forgettable role as Charlie's sister after a spousal abuse sub-plot is brought in and then just as quickly forgotten, really the only character to not get a fair go from Chbosky's script. Charlie's parents have almost as small a role in proceedings despite being played by relative heavyweights Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh. They both do well with what little they're given. Paul Rudd has a small but enjoyable role as Charlie's favourite teacher, Mr. Anderson. Rudd's charms are as affecting as ever and he adds a welcome dash of adulthood to the proceedings.
But the reason that this movie works is the way Stephen Chbosky brings these characters together to create one of the smartest, funniest and emotionally affecting teen films in years. Rather than talking down to the target audience, Chbosky credits his viewers with a level of intelligence not found in the more mindless of the masses. This may not impress the Twilight crowd for instance and people who saw Harry Potter for the effects who are just following Hermione may not come out of the theatre as impressed, but those looking for a smartly written, occasionally touching, brilliantly acted teen film will find everything they're looking for.