Emma Watson, appearing and sounding distinctly Pittsburgh-ian "damaged goods," yet as radiant and irresistible as ever, stands arms outstretched, head back, hair billowing in the 50 mile-per-hour night wind. She is moving, even as she is clearly moved, in that certain piercing melodramatic way that one only experiences during teenage life. That's when everything is so life and death, every emotion so much more deeply felt, and there are still enough new discoveries waiting in the world to justify living one's life in a state of such ionic hyperbole. Roaring through a long and spacious highway tunnel (as luminous-yellow and concrete as could be), Watson soaks up "Heroes" by David Bowie -- a mystery song to her, but she knows a classic when she hears one. THIS is a tunnel song! Somewhere miles back, we completely forgot Hermione Granger.
The fact that these well-read and pop-knowledgeable kids simply don't know the song "Heroes" and can't even readily identify the singer's unmistakable voice, but they also have no smart phones to look up the information at a moment's notice, begs the question of what year we are witnessing here. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
, poignantly funny throughout, is no doubt a period piece -- one of the stealthiest ones in a while. It's so nonchalant about its era, never beginning to flaunt its period design or props, never coming close to getting in our faces with it, that it's conceivable to experience the entire film not realizing it's the not-so-distant past.
Author Stephen Chbosky's book of the same name was a publishing world hit in 1999. For those like me who love to know a story's time and place, this is as good of a clue as we're going to get. Indeed, unexplained subtlety has never been an expected hallmark of "teen movies" -- which this, hitting so many overly-familiar themes of conformity and coming-of-age, very much is -- but just beneath the melodramatic-as-high-school surface of it all, it's what we're often left with. If I may be so bold to say, this is a movie and it's a film. It's John Hughes-ian if only in the sense that it's not afraid to offer up characters of depth and feeling, forsaking the regrettably accepted paper-thin horniness and cheap thrills of so many teen movies. (I'm looking at you, Project X.
) It must be warned that Chbosky gets very, very dark towards the end (not We Need to Talk About Kevin
dark -- that would be 'very, very, very dark,' with a fourth 'very' for good measure), well outside the comfort zone of John Hughes cinema. Some may well feel that the rug was pulled from beneath their feet. Me, I like hardwood floors anyway.
Current legend is that Chbosky successfully resisted Hollywood's massive dump truck of optioning money in exchange for the chance to direct the movie adaptation of his baby himself. As far as authors turned-directors go, this is an effort for the ages. Chbosky knows just when to put his prose aside, and let the visual medium he's now operating in do its thing. His shot choices and camera angles are just on this side of competent -- it's not this aspect of Wallflower
that will elevate its sub-genre -- but breathing room is granted, and the age-old directorial edict of show-don't tell is completely understood.
Logan Lerman carries the film as lead character Charlie, a high school freshman outsider who manages to fall in with a cool and nurturing group of levelheaded eccentric seniors. Watson's character, Sam, is key among them, and not just because she's the prettiest. Also key is Ezra Miller's oddly patriarchal Patrick, the film's token witty gay friend, but also someone with enough pain, pathos and snappy dialogue to fuel his own version of this story. Thanks to the buffering and fleetingly wondrous acceptance of these older, wiser, and worldly teens, Charlie's universe opens up to him in ways both good and bad. Why is he such a wallflower, anyway? For better or for worse, there is a reason, and it will be dealt with eventually. For the most part, Charlie's bonding with this group and with life opens his eyes. Perhaps he will no longer feel shame for being the smartest, most well spoken kid in the room, clearly radiated by that rare late 1990s radioactive element, Dawson's Creekite?
Charlie's experience of being the outcasty ninth grade youth who is granted acceptance by a pack of hipper, wiser and respectable older students is something to be coveted. I know because I lived my own version of this back in the day. It wasn't 1999, it was 1989. So instead of raving about The Smiths, we had Oingo Boingo, Queen, and believe it or not ... Billy Joel. (Yes, he was actually cool as cool could be for a time. At least to us.) Unlike Charlie, I found a degree of belonging within the school. (The older student friends for me were drama department denizens; roost-rulers of an area I was dabbling in.) Also unlike him, the religious faith of my home life was not (and is not) an empty thing, running on unidentifiable hollow hypocrisy. (His dad's mealtime blessing is immediately followed up with a string of "goddamns" -- an intended gag in the screenplay, if certainly a cheap one; only marginally less tired than the one where the pious man is proclaiming the Lord one moment and involuntarily yelling his name in vain the next.) But despite the film's broader familiar teen movie notes, this aspect rings true. Perhaps that's why The Perks of Being a Wallflower
resonates more so with me than some other critics. That's to take nothing away from its thorough craftsmanship and managed artistry.
If my teachers were as cool as the ones in Charlie's high school, I was too dense to notice. Paul Rudd has a small supporting role as the Literature teacher, and Tom Savini (!) is the shop teacher. (Never let it be said that Chbosky doesn't have a way with casting.) Director of photography Andrew Dunn brings out his A-game with a lush and rich look, even as the vital Pittsburgh aesthetic is never forsaken. With a soundtrack boiling over with great tunes (Joey Ramone, Cracker and Cocteau Twins all feature), Wallflower
walks away more than once having claimed cinematic ownership of a song; case in point "Come On Eileen," the 1980s one-hit wonder by Dexys Midnight Runners. And of course there's the aforementioned Bowie song (this isn't its first Hollywood rodeo), a question left wisely unanswered for most of the running time. Chbosky finds just the right note of soaring melodrama to end his film on, sending viewers away satisfied, and sending The Perks of Being a Wallflower
into the pantheon of all-time great teen films.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now playing in limited release across the U.S. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.