It took well over a decade for Stephen Chbosky’s seminal 1990s set young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower to come to life on the big screen, and having the book’s author write and direct the finished version works quite well on an emotional level, but not entirely in terms of filmmaking. Those with fond memories of Chbosky’s high school set tale of music, depression, friendship, and alienation (like myself) will be more than happy to know that thematically and structurally the film stays true to the source material. The only real problem is that it’s apparent that Chbosky is a far more talented writer than he is a director.
Coming off a particularly rough year that saw him institutionalized for a brief period, Charlie (Logan Lerman) sets out on his first day of his Freshman year of high school still shell shocked, socially awkward, and nearly friendless. He finds kindred spirits in a pair of Seniors: the openly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie falls in with their core group of friends quite nicely, partying with them and taking part in Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, all while trying to figure out who he is, what to do about his puppy dog crush on Sam, and how to put the past behind him once and for all.
The themes of sexual discovery and repressed childhood memories comes through wonderfully here since Chbosky knows exactly how to convey the subtext and concepts from his novel. He even unabashedly and admirably sticks to the novel’s fetishizing of popular music and culture, something that gave his original work a lot of character that many of the novel’s fans gravitated toward. What he doesn’t quite seem to understand for the first part of the film and very fleetingly at the end was that he didn’t need to overplay chunks of the story to make it seem more cinematic.
The opening narration of the film (which comes almost word for word from the novel) takes a while to feel unforced. It never mentions outright that it’s a 1990s period piece, which means viewers sort of have to figure that out on their own if they don’t know the material. At first Patrick and Sam are shown as almost being broad stereotypes of sassy teenagers before Chbosky rights his own ship about a quarter of the way in. It also isn’t the most well shot or edited movie, but this and every other problem that can be listed can be attributed to nothing more than Chbosky being a first time feature filmmaker trying to stay true to his material while hopefully introducing it to a new generation of fans.
Helping him to sell the film’s great story are some perfectly cast actors. Lerman and Miller make it hard to envision any other actors ever playing these roles, and their relationship to one another quickly becomes the best element of the film. Watson gets dealt a bad hand at first by Chbosky who seemingly wants to turn Sam into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but that fades away as soon as the film finds its footing and she gets to explore the character a bit more. The teens also find strong support from some big name adults in key roles, including Paul Rudd as Charlie’s sympathetic English teacher and Dylan McDermott as his father.
When Charlie’s past comes back to haunt him towards the film’s conclusion, it’s handled in truly gut wrenching fashion except for one very brief sequence that feels out of place and out of touch. It’s a moment that lasts mere seconds, but it helps to illustrate the film’s ultimate problems. It’s a great film based on a great book that stumbles every now and then. In that respect, it becomes a good example of a film made for fans of the source material. Again, that’s Chbosky aiming to be bigger and showier than he needs to be, but it never kills the pacing or weight of the proceedings. As a fan of the book, it pleased me. As a film critic, I can admit that it has some problems, but I can easily see where people can just as easily enjoy it on its own merits.