Thursday, October 11, 2012

Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower



I don't particularly care for teen movies. For one thing, I'm not a teen, and for another the writers tend to make mountains out of some pretty low stakes. Even the great Clueless, which I love and adore, comes down to whether or not Cher loves Josh, and he her. But even Clueless comes with an asterisk because it is a smart teen-movie satire, a modern retelling of Jane Austen's Emma and a tribute and time capsule to/of life in the 1990s.

I went into Perks expecting a certain thing that is hard to define. I knew from the promotional material and pre-release buzz that it wouldn't be a typical "why doesn't my 17-year-old boyfriend love me?" sobfest. I think I expected something along the lines of Juno, a smart-tongued nostalgia yarn with a killer soundtrack. Perks delivered that, but also something completely its own.

Perks tells the story of Charlie, an introverted freshman with an alluded-to history of mental illness who stumbles his way into friendship with a group of "Misfit" seniors, particularly a brotherly bond with Patrick (played with a masterful stroke by "We Need to Talk About Kevin"s Ezra Miller) and head-over-heels infatuation with Sam (Harry Potter's Emma Watson, can you blame him?).

The movie is a bundle of fine performances, with each actor inhabiting a true human being with sincerity and personal demons. Patrick is a too-clever-for-his-own-good student who also struggles with the emotional distance of a closeted relationship with the popular high school quarterback. Sam is in recovery from a wild past, where in her younger years upperclassman would get her drunk at parties to take advantage of her "reputation" and all stemming from a much-too-young inappropriate encounter with her father's boss.

Perks doesn't revel in these demons, it doesn't ask for your pity or even sympathy. If anything it opens a curtain on a group of high school students in Pittsburgh and invites you to simply observe as life goes on. There are themes about life, love and loyalty, but these are whispered in your ear to the backdrop of a superb blend of sight and sound instead of hung heavily over your head like an axe.

Director Steven Chbosky (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) also makes the wise decision of leaving the plot loosely oriented in time. The year in which the movie is set is never explicitly stated, instead leaving it up to the audience to derive the late-80s, early-90s mood from the mix tapes of David Bowie music, Rocky Horror performances and pre-Hipster use of vinyl records. In that way, Perks is not an attempt to define a generation but is, by design, a timeless tale of three friends in high school.

Its weakness is its length, running a full two hours and flirting with the cliff of viewer attention. The plot drags somewhat toward the end, but Chbosky steers it back and bookends his tale with a beautiful and satisfyingly open-ended finale. The casting is a revelation, and while both Miller and Watson do their best to steal the show, the understated honesty of Logan Lerman's Charlie is remarkable and grounds the adolescent emotion. Hopefully, we'll see much more of him in the future and in good projects like this. B+

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