One of the most honest and assured teen dramas in recent memory, writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower feels in many ways like vintage John Hughes, only infused with a bit more substance and transplanted to the mid-’90s. Filled with expressive, well-rounded characters, directed with restraint but remarkable attention to detail, and possessing a distinctive sense of time and place that evokes nostalgia without wallowing in it, the movie portrays the universal truth of adolescence in a manner that speaks to multiple generations and possesses all the hallmarks of a contemporary teen classic.
Pittsburgh, PA: 1991. Smart and sensitive teen Charlie (Logan Lerman) is still grieving his best friend’s suicide as he prepares for his first day of high school. As Charlie navigates the hallways and witnesses the torment of the freshman class at the hands of the cavalier seniors, he attempts to keep a low profile in English class. However, he quickly catches the attention of his teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who recognizes his passion for writing and literature. Eventually, Charlie works up the confidence to start a conversation with flamboyantly gay senior Patrick (Ezra Miller), who, along with his pretty stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), gradually begins to pull the sheepish freshman out of his shell and into their tightly knit social circle. But as Charlie’s newfound companions prepare to graduate from high school, the memories of his best friend and a troubling event from his childhood weigh heavy on his conscience. And later, when Charlie commits a social faux pas that leaves him more isolated than ever before, his internal and external pressures threaten to become too much of a burden for one boy to carry.
From the opening scene of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as Charlie pens a heartfelt letter to a “friend,” making vague references to spending time in a hospital and expressing hopes that he won’t “get bad again,” the film establishes a deeply personal tone that endears us to the genuinely likeable protagonist. Charlie may be socially awkward and unable to express himself effectively, but we recognize that he’s an inherently good person whose complicated and tragic past makes it difficult for him to establish the typical social bonds. We’ve all known people like Charlie, and Chbosky pens the familiar character with the kind of careful attention to detail that gives him an added dimension missing from the vast majority of teen dramas. Remarkably, that writing talent not only extends to the key supporting characters of Patrick and Sam (both wonderfully played by Miller and Watson, respectively), but even to such peripheral figures as Mr. Anderson, closeted jock Brad (Johnny Simmons), and angry Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) as well, creating a fully realized world that anyone who has ever attended high school will surely relate to. Meanwhile, the talented Melanie Lynskey makes a lasting impression in a small but crucial role, as does Dylan McDermott in his portrayal of Charlie’s gruff yet loving father.
Despite all of this, it takes more than perceptive writing and solid performances to create a teen film with the power to affect more than just the demographic it portrays, and with the iconic (if not slightly heavy-handed) imagery of Patrick and Charlie cruising through a freeway tunnel in a pickup truck while Sam stands in the back, arms wide out, seemingly ready to embrace her uncertain future as David Bowie blasts out of the radio, Chbosky captures one of those elusive, transcendent moments that we all remember from our formative years. Accomplishing such a lofty goal without coming off as contrived or insipid is no simple task, but with a smart, skillfully constructed screenplay that treats its protagonists with genuine dignity and indelible performances by an accomplished cast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a deeply soulful drama that establishes its writer/director as a rising talent with an authentically compelling and distinctive voice.
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