'Wallflower' Contains Numerous Perks
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I remember, at a reasonably well-renowned film festival about 10 years ago, after the screening of a particularly touchy-feely picture about a white American suburban boy and his problems, a critic I knew standing in the lobby practically screeched, "If I have to sit through another [expletive] teen coming-of-age movie ever again, I'm gonna KILL SOMEONE." As the subsequent near-decade since has seen no rise in homicides by film critics, I can assume that individual was exaggerating, as there have been myriad cinematic motives for murder in that time. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," written and directed by Stephen Chbosky and adapted from his very popular novel of the same name, comes into theaters with a lot of seeming precedent. The American teen or young male coming-of-age tale has turned into a mostly indie staple, and it's spawned its own set of clichés, from the half-a-limp-noodle indie-rock soundtrack to the now-dreaded so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl foil for the misunderstood protagonist.
From its title to its opening scene in which teen protagonist Charlie composes a letter to an unseen mystery friend, the movie induces an understandable sense of dread. But soon I was carried along by a current of honest feeling that wasn't cloying.
Charlie is a bookish kid, socially awkward, lives in a suburb ... great future film critic material, I know. But never mind that for now. Chbosky, for what it's worth, takes these commonplaces and invests them with a particular kind of filmmaking energy and perspective and a disarming frankness. The sort of unstuck-in-time setting of the movie, a kind of indefinite era between vinyl and downloads, will drive viewers who need to know exactly when they're at completely nuts, but this turns out to be one of the features that helps the movie work, creating its empathetic space in a way indefinite enough to draw in anyone likely to "relate."
It also helps that Charlie is smart but not annoyingly precocious and seems genuinely, not indulgently, damaged. He's played by Logan Lerman with unassuming delicacy that never devolves into outright willowiness, although every now and then the actor throws in a jarring note of early Christian Slater. It also helps that Sam, his female foil, played by Emma Watson, while something of an undeniable dream girl -- that's kind of the point -- is not particularly manic, but a troubled loner who's most animated in the presence of her gay stepbrother Patrick, played with gusto, as they say, by Ezra Miller.
Patrick and Sam are high school seniors who take lonely freshman Charlie under their wings -- "Welcome to the island of misfit toys," Sam informs him at one point -- and the movie often works best as a series of articulately conveyed moments about the times in life in which shared alienation transforms into a sense of belonging. The movie lopes along in this mode for quite some time, but the things that are troubling Charlie keep tugging at his coming-of-age, as it were, chief among them his childhood relationship with a revered aunt (Melanie Lynskey) that turns out to have had a very particular dimension.
The writing, the acting by a stellar cast (aside from the luminous, haunted Lynskey, the adults in the cast include Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Joan Cusack and, uh, Tom Savini), the specificity of the Pittsburgh environments, and, yes, the well-coordinated mostly indie-rock soundtrack take this movie into both the blessed and dark places it wants to go without ever getting too sentimental. It's not often that a picture wears its heart so far out on its sleeve, but I found the ultimate "statement" of "Wallflower" to be a humane and encouraging one that the movie manages to deliver without getting overly precious. Not an accomplishment to shy away from.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.