Much like every other teen drama film ever, Stephen Chbosky’s second directorial venture – based on his own bestselling novel – makes the mistake of portraying all its leads as deep, dark, traumatised intellectuals with a penchant for old records.
But beneath the veneer of irritating clichés, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has some interesting, challenging things to say about being a teenager and boasts impressive performances from its young cast.
We open on Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman starting his first day of high school. As indicated early on, Charlie has been through some sort of emotional problems and has never had real friends. His initial experiences of high school are, as you might expect, tremendously lonely and chocked full of bullies pushing him into lockers, stealing his homework and ridiculing him when he puts his hand up in class.
But before long, Charlie has tentatively entered into a friendship with two misfits, Sam (Emma Watson) and her flamboyant stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller). Welcomed into their friendship group, Charlie soon finds himself grappling with relationships, sex and drugs – alongside the inevitable resurfacing of some old traumas.
Unsurprisingly, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, much like many other films of its ilk, has some nail-chewingly, squirm-in-your-seat moments of cringey-ness. But if you can get past the most offensive lines (“Welcome to the island of misfit toys”; “Let’s go be psychos together”; “Everything sounds better on vinyl”), Chbosky’s film has some genuinely tender, interesting, well-acted moments, most of which revolve around the relationship between Lerman’s sweet, thoughtful Charlie and Ezra Miller’s exuberant Patrick.
Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is where Patrick kisses Charlie in a moment of emotional turmoil and immediately breaks down in tears. Where a less sophisticated film would have Charlie recoil, Perks has him comfort his friend. It’s a sweet, truthful portrayal of youth in which confusion abounds and not everyone is a kneejerk homophobe.
Elsewhere, though, Chbosky’s film veers dangerously in the direction of syrupy worthiness. Obviously, in the real world, not everyone is hiding ghastly childhood traumas and this is where the supporting cast – largely Mae Whitman’s Mary Elizabeth – helps to lift the heavy tone.
With her über-trendy haircut and vaguely pretentious lines (“I just love old music”) Mary Elizabeth embodies, more than the other characters, a realistic modern hipster teen whose major issues revolve around boyfriends and getting into her first choice university.
Ultimately, The Perks of Being A Wallflower skirts the boundary between the teeth-grindingly earnest and the genuinely involving. This is a film which goes beyond the norms of the teen drama, daring to depict a world in which traumas will not necessarily evaporate with the discovery of first love; in which a troubled relationship will not end happily just because we will it to.
As expected, we end on a hopeful note, but Chbosky’s film doesn’t patronize its viewers; Charlie the outcast can never hope to be crowned Prom King, but – as shown here – what does that really matter anyway?
Released in UK cinemas on Thursday 3rd October 2012 by Summit Entertainment.
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