I always think it’s exciting when a book I love is turned into a film because it signifies that somebody else understands how powerful, beautiful, poignant, and amazing this book is, and they want to share it with an audience. While I realize that this is not always the motivation in Hollywood, in this case I believe it to be true, considering that producer John Malkovich went straight to author Stephen Chbosky to adapt the screenplay and that Chbosky was hired to direct. It isn’t frequently the norm in Hollywood that a novice director would be given the opportunity to direct a high volume project. Then again, he is a dude.
If you have no relationship with the book, or if you’re not really into movies that reflect reality, you may find this film depressing or even boring. Set in the early 90s in suburban Pittsburgh, Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a lonely high school freshman recovering from the suicide of his best friend and working through a lifetime of unbalanced emotions. Urged by his therapist to “participate” Charlie seeks salvation with the help of two new friends, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), the guidance of his English teacher (Paul Rudd), and, the ultimate lifesaving device–music.
While the film does a good job of painting the picture of adolescent “outcast” culture, it is a little too glossy. Having the author so involved is certainly what saved Perks from being a watered-down replica of itself, but the film was produced within the “Hollywood machine,” essentially sacrificing some of the creative control that may have lent to its authenticity. Another coming-of-age story set in the mid-90s, 2008’s The Wackness was a period piece that made nostalgic for the era in which it was set, and the music triggered as much of a response as the plot and performances. But, the film adaptation of Perks just made me nostalgic for the book. Oh, isn’t that always the case? Chbosky himself admitted this was one of the most difficult projects he’s worked on. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, he noted that “It was the most challenging screenplay I’ve ever written, just by the nature of what the book was–a first-person epistolary novel. To turn that into something objective with the same emotional intimacy and emotional catharsis was hard.”
The music for the most part stays true to the book, except for a brief cameo by Cracker’s Low, which is never mentioned in the book and wasn’t released until 1993. This was nullified when Dear God by XTC, a staple of my freshman year in the suburbs of Philadelphia, plays a narrator’s role in a significant transitional scene.
Your connection to the characters, and especially Charlie, will ultimately decide how much you enjoy the film and Lerman (Hoot) succeeds in delivering a deeply moving performance. Part of Charlie’s alienation, and woven into the subtext of the film, is the deviation from traditional male behavior. Charlie is emotional, caring, reserved. He’s not an athlete or a Casanova. He is moved by music and literature. We continuously see his admiration of and respect for women–in his support of his sister after he witnesses her boyfriend slap her and his unconditional love for Sam, regardless of the rumors that tarnish her reputation. And while these are both serious issues affecting teen girls-dating violence, slut shaming–the core of the film brings much needed attention to the complicated experience of boys, driven by Charlie and Patrick.
Two of my favorite young actors, Lerman and Miller, both successfully deliver a unique portrayal of masculinity essential to both of their characters. Miller infuses Patrick with a delightful fervor for life and irreverence for his tormentors. How much of it is bravado is unclear until what he is holding inside is finally given cause to break out. In one of the most volatile scenes, both Charlie and Patrick are caught in a convolution of anger, fear, violence, aggression and survival. When Patrick is beaten and emotionally broken, it is Charlie who comes to his rescue, both physically and emotionally. The tenderness of their relationship is another powerful image for teens to receive.
Perks of Being a Wallflower is certainly not the traditional “teen romp” caliber, but these are important characters to see on screen. Perks couldn’t be better timed to reflect challenges contemporary teenagers face in their everyday lives, and if they only find support and solidarity on film, it’s better than nothing. Truly, the story is timeless and for many us the haunts and angst of adolescence stay with us well into adulthood. The desire to belong, to be valued, to protect the ones we love and of course, the hardest part, to just be happy.