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Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was something of an anthem for introverts. Over a million high schoolers and former high schoolers identified with the book, published by MTV, as it chronicled a series of letters written by a freshman Charlie to his unidentified “Friend.” He struggles with typical adolescent topics (inclusion, sexuality) and faces a few rarer ones (drug abuse, domestic violence, family secrets), always sheepishly observing and rarely stepping in to participate. 13 years later – a lifetime in teenage years – a new generation of high schoolers have a film version of Charlie with which to sympathize. Directed and written by Chbosky himself, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a tender addition to a canon of high school flicks, unique not in its story or subject matter, but in its subtle handling of a tender period in life.
In an early moment in the book and film, Charlie (Logan Lerhman) enters his first high school house party. It’s filled with the expecteds: Solo cups, weed, and couples making out. He’s stowed away against the fireplace, flanked by two seniors who have taken a liking to his intoxicated musings. Two sympathetic seniors, the spontaneous Sam (Emma Watson) and her curly-headed step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), have invited him and take a moment to raise a toast. “We just want to toast to our new friend,” Patrick announces.” You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.” “I didn’t think anyone noticed me,” Charlie responds. Patrick counters, “We didn’t think there was anyone cool left to meet.”
Lerhman, who has a lengthy Hollywood resume at only 20, captures Charlie’s quietness exceptionally well, his lips often quavering but no words coming out. Watson, of Harry Potter fame, is a strong Sam, although her delivery of some of the film’s more clichéd lines feels a bit too self-aware (I could have done without “Welcome to the island of misfit toys”). Miller absolutely dazzles as the curly-headed, out and proud Patrick, a refreshing character against the tired trope of a closeted teen. Welcomed into this group of delightfully anti-mainstream friends (Sam and Patrick nearly piss themselves when “good music” begins to play at their high school homecoming), Charlie finds companionship, as his the baggage of his past slowly unfolds like letters being painfully typed on a typewriter. Set in a Pittsburgh suburb in the early 1990s, typewriters, mix tapes and other relics of the past contribute to the nostalgia in the film’s target demographic — namely, anyone who is in or has been in high school.
The setting of high school has been well-mined by filmmakers before, but Chbosky’s charming and unexpectedly suspenseful screenplay pair with his subtle cinematography and a particularly strong, young ensemble to make those four years feel new again. The film is wondrously paced, cruising down a neighborhood street in its dad’s pick-up at a smooth 25 miles per hour, and Chompsky is mostly able to steer clear of saccharine self-awareness many dramatic high school flicks fall victim to. Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s dad peppers in some comedic relief; memorable one-liners include prom photo commentary, “The Buddhist needs to smile more” and a response to an allowance request, “20 dollars? What do you need 10 dollars for?” With all its charm, Perks is a nuanced and heart-breaking ode to wallflowers and a welcome addition to the high school film canon.