From the earnest indie film voice-over, to the early nineties alt-rock soundtrack and emotional revelation at the end, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is well-soaked in the familiar brine of teen sensitivity.
Stephen Chbosky’s movie of his own best-selling 1999 youth novel is the latest in a long line of films descended from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel and teen-angst foundation text, The Catcher in the Rye. A short list might include The Art of Getting By, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Tadpole, Igby Goes Down and The United States of Leland.
Perks doesn’t mess with the formula here, though it somewhat ups the ante. Cherub-cheeked Quiet Charlie (Logan Lerman of Percy Jackson & the Olympians) is a high-school freshman in 1951 Pittsburgh who has just come out of a depression triggered by not one, but two unrelated tragedies: the suicide of his best friend and the death of a favourite aunt (Melanie Lynskey), seen in flashback.
After a miserable start to the school year, he falls under the sway of a couple of wacky seniors: witty, gay teen Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his half-sister, Sam (a post-Harry Potter Emma Watson). Encouraged by Patrick, and carrying a torch for Sam, with her sixties’ boho chic bob and damaged past, Charlie soon transforms from a wallflower into a kind of misfit mascot for the clique. Also in Charlie’s corner is his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), an aspiring novelist who sees Charlie’s promise as a writer and yes, gives him extra credit for reporting on The Catcher in the Rye.
Teen adventures abound: There’s the pot brownie scene, the Rocky Horror midnight screening and performance, and the ecstatic ride listening to David Bowie’s Heroes on the radio. Occasionally, the momentum flags (another party, another stoned confession), though performances are, with a few wobbles, likeable. Lerner’s a little too recessive to be memorable and Watson’s character is idealized, but Mae Whitman (Arrested Development), as Mary Elizabeth, has a fun turn as an abrasive punk, vegan Buddhist who selects Charlie to be her boyfriend. Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) as the acerbic Patrick, is the real scene-stealer here, mixing bad-boy sass and vulnerability. When he gets gay-bashed by the predictably nasty jocks, he says, perhaps too aptly: “My life is now officially an After School Special.”
As long as Chbosky sticks to the story of surviving high school, Perks has a modest charm. But a melodramatic last-act bombshell about Charlie’s troubled past, is jarring – like the giant foot of Godzilla descending to squash tender Bambi. It’s a case of too much, too late and, ultimately, from a different kind of movie.