One of the best moments of the entire festival for me so far was seeing Rory Cochrane join Ben Affleck onstage during the introduction for “Argo.” The two of them co-starred in one of my favorite films, “Dazed and Confused,” and it was just great to see them together again. The thing I’ve always loved most about that movie is the way it captured that feeling of those long, weird adolescent days when curfew was broken and substances were imbibed and nothing seemed to matter except the moment.
Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of his novel, “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” is equally adept at evoking the feeling of being young and unfocused and full of potential and desire without focus. It is smart, it is delicately made, and it is played perfectly by its young ensemble cast. I haven’t read his book, so I can’t tell you how faithful the film is, but I can tell you that it affected me deeply and moved me greatly. It is a wonderful, tender thing, and I hope this is just the beginning of what we see from Chbosky as a filmmaker.
Coming of age stories are such a frequent occurrence that it makes me wonder sometimes if everyone finds their own adolescence endlessly fascinating. Is it the universal things that we share that makes the stories so interesting, or is it the specific things that make us different that make each story worth telling? The general structure of “Perks” is fairly simple. We start with the first day of the high school career of Charlie (Logan Lerman), and we follow him through his entire freshman year. Charlie is a troubled kid, but bright and funny and determined to get past whatever it is that he’s been dealing with.
He ends up falling into a friendship with a group of seniors, and they help Charlie navigate some of the milestones of adolescence. Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) are step-siblings, and these feel like significant roles for both of them. Ezra Miller was great in last year’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” but there was something so animal and feral about his work in that film that I felt like he was going to end up typecast to always play the shit. As Patrick, though, Miller is a huge life force, charismatic and sweet and funny, and it’s the kind of role that could change the way people perceive Miller completely. The same is true with Emma Watson’s work as Sam, the girl who represents everything Charlie wants in the world. As Hermione Granger, Watson had a particular set of tics and mannerisms that evolved over the course of the “Harry Potter” series. Here, I don’t see any of that at all. It is such a shift for her, and she’s so natural and real here, that I think this would count as the beginning of her adult career. It’s a lovely nuanced performance, and at this point, it’s impossible not to take note of just how striking she’s become. Mae Whitman plays Mary Elizabeth, another member of their small circle of friends, and Erin Wilhelmi rounds out the group as Alice, a goth with an easy, omnipresent smile. Starting with a party where Charlie is fed pot brownies, these older kids usher Charlie into a world of new experiences, but also of close friendship. They recognize something genuine and beautiful in Charlie, and they all help him find his voice in different ways.
What ultimately makes “Perks” such a strong film is the small detail work. Chbosky etches beautifully all those little things that add up to who we become in high school, and he isn’t afraid to let in the difficulty and the pain and the sorrow that is also part of that age. When Charlie does finally break, Chbosky doesn’t gloss over it or soft-pedal it, and when Charlie finds happiness, Chbosky treats that with equal import, making sure we can share in the small triumphs. I love the way the film seems to take its time and really linger over things like the feeling of jumping up to play a part in the audience participation version of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or the way Chbosky doesn’t try to use fancy effects or exaggerated comedy to portray the way drugs make Charlie feel. There’s no judgment built into the film. It is sympathetic and unflinching, and that almost uncomfortable degree of direct honesty is what really makes it stand out.
Many films have tried to capture the feeling of those years, but there’s a huge difference here between “good enough” and “genuinely great.” Andrew Dunn’s photography works hand in hand with the production design by Inbal Weinberg and the costume designs by David C. Robinson to create an authentic early ’90s vibe without tipping over into obvious period detail.
Overall, this one snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting much, but Logan Lerman is so good here that I found myself drawn in immediately. I think this is one of those films that anyone in high school should see, and I suspect for many people, it will land very close to home. I know that I’m having trouble shaking the emotional impact of the last half-hour or so, and it’s a full day later. Even if you think you’re “over” teenage movies and coming of age tales, check this one out. It takes familiar subject matter and spins fresh insight and sharp characterization in equal measure.
“The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” opens in theaters September 21, 2012 in limited release.