If there’s one potent truth I could tell you about the teen film genre, it’s this: There’s a profound difference between a teenage movie and a movie about teenagers.
Teenage movies are a genre unto themselves. And, often, they are built upon flash cuts of willful stupidity. Shallow, inane and forgettable seconds after the movie ends, these films aren’t content with just being mindless, they dare to commit a more egregious sin; they treat their primary audience as if they are just as stupid, shallow and crass as the film itself.
A film about teenagers sees its subjects clearly and respects them. They may contain humor and warmth, but they refuse to shy away from poignancy and the painful truths of adolescence. Whether they are fun trifles (Clueless, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) or darker, more serious-minded affairs (Boy A, Chronicle) these films distinguish themselves with their uncommon depth, intelligence, wit and, ultimately, respect for its audience.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower belongs squarely in the latter category and, in one scene after another, demonstrates that it deserves its place among the very best of them.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who authored the celebrated novel the film is based on, Perks tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a newly minted freshman in the early 90’s who starts out with a mission that seems pretty simple, but is actually packed with potential landmines.
Charlie decides he needs to “participate” in his own life.
An extremely bright teen that is also painfully shy, isolated and barely keeping a lid on some serious pain and loss, he navigates hallways filled with noise, bullies and isolation. His mission will not be an easy one.
After many fumbled attempts, Charlie finally catches a break when he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), an out gay senior who almost redefines the term “free spirit” and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson) whom Charlie is instantaneously smitten with.
As populated as their worlds are with both friends and lovers, Patrick and Sam are also, in their own ways, outcasts and when they find a kindred spirit in Charlie, the result is a bond that forms almost immediately.
An early, and beautifully rendered, scene at a party has Patrick leading a toast to the newest member of their “’Island of Misfit Toys.”
“I didn’t think anyone noticed me,” Charlie tells him.
“Well we didn’t think there was anyone cool left to meet.”
Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller
It’s through Patrick and Sam that Charlie is first introduced to the joys of parties, the pitfalls of recreational drug use, and the liberation of Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings. Most importantly, he gains a true sense of what it means to really belong somewhere. Anywhere.
You’d be forgiven for thinking, at this point, that Perks sounds like nothing more than some mawkish ode to friendship and the power of love. And in lesser hands, this film would have sunk into an intractable goo of nostalgia and sentimentality.
But the film derives its impact by first, complicating these friendships with surrounding (and palpable) dramas. Secondly, the film withholds, then gradually reveals past trauma that Charlie hasn’t really faced and still seems all too ill-equipped to confront but will viciously claw their way back to the surface to possibly destroy him.
It’s this ever present and adroitly paced tension that gives the film its distinctive engine and prevents it from veering into pat predictability.
If this all seems vague, it’s because to reveal more would give away aspects of the film that are best left to discover on your own. But I will talk about the performances.
As Sam, Watson is a radiant presence. Gone are the all the mannered gestures and clipped stiffness of her only other character of note, Hermione Granger. Here, she finds the bad girl-gone good fragility of Sam and avoids all traces of twee, even if she can still be caught slipping into her natural British accent in one or two scenes.
While completely wasting the talents of Dylan McDermott (American Horror Story) and Kate Walsh (Private Practice) and giving particular short shrift to the group’s shoplifting rich girl, Alice (Erin Wilhemi, we hardly knew you), it does give us the scene-stealing Mae Whitman (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) as Mary Elizabeth, Charlie’s the accidental and unwanted girlfriend.
Logan Lerman and Mae Whitman
But the two powerhouse performances of the film belong to Miller and Lerman.
Anyone who caught Miller’s bone-chilling performance as the son from Hell in last year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin knows how gifted he is.
But in Perks, he’s a damn revelation, showcasing, for the first time I’ve seen in any of his work, a real gift for comedic timing and flair. The vast majority of the film’s big laughs come from him, and he’s missed whenever he’s not on screen.
That isn’t to say that he’s playing a variation of the one-note gay best friend role. The script allows Patrick moments that subtly demonstrate that all the humor and facetiousness is an armor he wears to keep all of the arrows fired at him from hitting too deep.
But one arrow does hit its mark (again I’m being purposefully vague here), and Miller’s transition into those more heavily dramatic moments never feels like it’s shoehorned in from another movie because of the care he’s taken to really build this character into a multi-dimensional human being.
While Miller will be the name you’ll be hearing about (and deservedly so), I believe Lerman delivers an even more surprising performance in the difficult role of Charlie.
Veer too heavily in quirk and you’ll hit Forrest Gump. Too glum and you might as well have given the film to Tim Burton.
Lerman, known primarily for his role as the bland title character in the Harry Potter-esque Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, avoids both by showing us how utterly frustrated Charlie is at being Charlie.
Charlie isn’t an innocent wandering through life; he’s an innocent because intense isolation and real trauma have forced innocence upon him like a chain. Something isn’t right about Charlie. We know it the moment we meet him. But we still root for him, and that’s due to some wise and effective choices Lerman makes in the role.
The third act payoff reveals those choices to be even more rewarding (not to mention heart-breaking) and, as a result of his note-perfect approach to the part, he owns the film.
I don’t want to oversell this film for fear that I’m setting impossibly high expectations. But there is no denying that Perks is an ambitious piece of work that largely succeeds due to the strength of its script and a trio of magnificent performances.
All of this serves to highlight another huge difference between a teen movie and a film about teenagers. We grow out of teen movies. Films about teenagers grow with us and can stay with us for the rest of our lives. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has remained with me weeks after the credits have rolled and, in this day and age, that is no small achievement.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is scheduled to open in wide release on September 21.