The Perks of Being a Wallflower (M). Director: Stephen Chbosky. Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Johnny Simmons, Mae Whitman. 102 minutes
Charlie (Lerman) has a sad story. He is the youngest child of an affluent suburban family. He is intelligent and loved by his parents. But there is trauma in his past, including most recently the suicide of his best (and only) friend. He's dealing with this as best he can while also confronting the daunting prospect of entering high school — a place where he is bullied even by other smart kids. He is literally counting the days until he graduates.
Charlie narrates The Perks of Being a Wildflower via a series of letters he is writing to an anonymous recipient whom he merely addresses as 'Dear friend'. These written monologues are part journal, part confessional. They relate his first awkward days at the new school, and his eventual discovery of a network of older kids, including charismatic Patrick (Miller) and his half sister Sam (Watson), self-declared misfits who take him under their wing.
Charlie, an apsiring writer, finds in Patrick, Sam and their assembled gang of goths, punks and artists not only sympathetic souls but kindred spirits. They nurture his individuality, introduce him to their most beloved music, take him to parties, share drugs and dreams. He becomes infatuated with Sam, and their relationship forms the heart of the film, and is sweetly, authentically evocative of high school not-quite-romances.
Charlie's sad story contains other sad stories. An introvert and a writer, he is deeply empathetic. He sees in others sad stories that reflect his own. Sam is a smart girl with troubled self-esteem. Patrick is openly gay but is engaged in a secret affair with a closeted jock, Brad (Simmons). Charlie's sympathy regarding this painful scenario is mainly for Patrick, but he sees enough to understand that it is a sad story for Brad, too.
The sadness is evoked but not laboured by first-time director Chbosky, who wrote the screenplay based on his own 1999 novel. Far from self-indulgent, Chbosky's treatment of his source material is suitably economical. His tightly constructed screenplay is coaxed to life by a gentle directorial touch and nicely naturalistic performances. Chbosky's empathy for the characters, mirrored in their empathy for each other, elicits an aching pathos.
Even loose narrative threads are plucked for their emotional resonance. Charlie's sister is in a physically abusive relationship; this is not dwelt upon by Chbosky, yet it remains central to Charlie's emotional milieu. Similarly, Charlie's relationship with an (apparently deceased) aunt — and the closeness and also horror associated with that relationship — is poignantly, painfully revealed through the most fleeting and understated of flashbacks.
I sat with a lump in my throat for 70 per cent of this film. It ploughed deep into my affective memory of being a high school 'wallflower' myself, with all the empathy and voyeurism and destructive self-absorption that entails. Part of the irony of such an existence is that while you feel deeply for others. Sometimes being so deeply introspective means that you can miss the possible hurtful consequences of your own actions.
Charlie learns this the hard way. He becomes involved with punk/buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Whitman), even though he does not reciprocate her affection. He defers the pain and conflict of a break-up until he eventually snuffs the relationship in brutal and humiliating fashion. The experience serves as a painful reminder to Charlie that there is a world beyond the bubble of his awareness, upon which his actions can impact significantly.
This is less a 'teen movie' than a period drama whose main audience is surely adults who were adolescents in the 1990s. It takes place in a world where mix tapes are de rigeur (do kids these days exchange iTunes playlists with the objects of their affection?). Music is central in the life of Chbosky's characters (his novel was published by MTV); it is central to their emotional formation and to their social and self-actualising epiphanies.
Most evocatively, David Bowie's 'Heroes' — which these hip teens adore, but are inexplicably unable to identify — provides the perfect aural and thematic backdrop to moments where youths on the cusp of adulthood declare they feel connected to the 'infinite'; to a universe vaster and more fantastic than their immediate lives.
It is during such a moment that Charlie has his most important epiphany: that he and his friends are not simply sad stories; they are alive. 'We can be us', howls Bowie, 'just for one day' — and hopefully for many more, too.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.