You either ‘get’ The Perks of Being a Wallflower or you don’t. But if you do, it gets you, too. Ever since the source novel was first published 13 years ago, many have compared Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age tale to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The association makes sense, as both novels derive their power from empathy and resonate strongest with the creatures most demanding of it: teenagers. Not everyone connects with these stories — not because of class, race or age as much as a certain sensibility. Perks, as it is affectionately called, speaks to those with a curiosity unfulfilled by a school curriculum, those with a romantic streak marked by spells of sadness, those who crank up Bowie’s “Heroes” while driving with the top down and windows open because, hell, that’s life right there.
Set in Pittsburgh circa the early ‘90s, Perks tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), who narrates from a series of letters he sends to an anonymous acquaintance. Charlie is a shy, troubled and brilliant kid entering his freshman year of high school. Suicide took away his one good friend just months before, and the violent death of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) — his “favorite person in the whole world” — on his seventh birthday haunts him still. Struggling alone with remnants of severe depression, Charlie finds the transition more difficult than most. There’s that one girl who calls him a “faggot” for his neat stationary; other bullies join her when they learn he aces papers and completes them early. Perhaps you need to suspend some disbelief to buy that a guy who looks like Lerman can get this much flak, but think back to the dull ones in high school who saw beauty in conformity and disorder in everything else.
With nachos in his hands and nowhere to sit at the football game, Charlie summons a few words to engage Patrick (Ezra Miller), the goofy senior in his freshman shop class. Patrick’s half-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), joins them and Charlie is instantly smitten — I say “instantly” because of the angelic close-up that introduces her, with her face eclipsing the Friday night lights like a halo. After the game, Sam and Patrick welcome Charlie to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” Sam’s too-perfect title for their eclectic group of friends, which also includes “punk Buddhist” Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), kleptomaniac Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) and stoner Bob (Adam Hagenbuch). These are the creative and inquisitive types, some from happy families and others from abusive ones. If you fall under Perks’ purview, you will overlap in some way with one or more of these characters. They scrap the past in favor of the present, bonding over car rides, gifts, dancing, study sessions, movies, marijuana, LSD, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Come on Eileen,” The Smiths and lots of mixtapes.
Most teenage movies fall apart after these introductions, devolving into hedonism or empty moralizing. Perks is not like most teenage movies. In a rare sign of trust, producers handed directing and writing duties to the most capable hands possible: Stephen Chbosky himself. He expands the characters he created with simple but undoubtedly filmic elements (there’s grain on the image!). Soft light diffracts about the theater during a Rocky Horror reenactment the friends stage before a packed midnight screening. Their dance moves bring down the house, despite slip-ups here and there. These kids might as well be you or me during those times we stepped out of our comfort zones with a little help from our friends. Perks appeals to those moments of belonging — when “we are infinite,” as Charlie says — and asks us to cherish the love we get.
Love, in its oh-so-many forms, unites these characters and tears them apart. Sam eventually returns Charlie’s affection, in a romance with many ups and downs. Patrick carries on a secret relationship with the school’s football star despite growing homophobic pressures. Charlie tortures himself with the burden of his aunt’s death, for she died in a car crash after giving him a special birthday present. Charlie’s supportive English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), finds an answer for all the pain the most positive of emotions seems to carry: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
The cast (which, by the way, includes our very own Julie Leon ’15 as an extra in the first Mr. Anderson scene) dodges the histrionic pitfalls littered about these roles. Lerman delivers a quietly powerful performance that may be tough to watch for those who share or have shared his timid or depressive traits. As for Watson, not once did I think about the Harry Potter films when she was on screen. Far from an overachieving bookworm (it is Charlie who helps her study for the SATs), Sam suffered childhood abuse that left her damaged, and Watson nails the subtleties. And Miller, who terrified as the child from hell in We Need to Talk About Kevin, does an about face here, stealing the best and funniest lines. His role also demands a few potent scenes, whereupon he taps into that familiar melancholy.
I guess you can look at all this and still consider Perks to be routine, or contrived, or stereotypical. Come on, Zach, I’ve seen this all before, you say. You have, yes, and you’ve also heard, smelled, tasted and felt these moments before. Those memories rattle around your brain to this day. Therein lies your power.
Consider life itself. So much of it abides by routine: We start with the developmental rites of passage mostly out of our control — our first hairs, teeth, steps, words, ‘potty.’ We grow up with ‘play dates,’ television programs and coloring books with shapes that have already been drawn. We begin to process what is going on, how others view us and how we view them. Bam! Acne hits, voices crack and organs grow. We feel miserable. We don’t ask for the purpose of life but for the purpose of living. We grow outward. We begin to notice a pattern. We are surrounded by people playing this same cosmic game. We realize we don’t have the answers to life but everyone else does. We ignore that they actually don’t, because we are having too much fun. We laugh, gossip, cry, fight, kiss, have sex and children. We grow old and settle in routine once more — there are bills to pay. We relax and watch our children start all over, and then their children. We die. What’s the point? Who knows. But we do know the time was worth it when we’re with those we love. We exchange jokes, secrets and mixtapes. And we watch a movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and think, “Huh, someone else gets it.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now playing at Cinemapolis.