Based on the smash hit YA novel by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the best teen-centric movies produced in the past decade. There really hasn’t been much else released that isn’t dystopian (ie: The Hunger Games) that I can recall being anywhere near this good of a teen/high school movie. The last movie I can easily recall being as good as this movie would be 2010’s Easy A.

Being a high school movie connoisseur, I’ve enjoyed several takes on the high school experience – but I really can’t pick a better example of the outcast experience in the late 1990s and 2000s than this one. There are a few movies that do somewhat reflect the experiences of the 1980s and older, such as Heathers or Pretty in Pink and the like, but every generation’s school experience is different due to cultural shifts and technological advances.

As a high school coming-of-age story, we’re introduced to Charlie (Logan Lerman) – a freshman in high school. Freshman year in high school is essentially a very hard experience for anybody, especially more so if you’re shy. Charlie befriends two seniors, Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller). Their lives become intertwined as we progress through the school year – Charlie is able to join in with the seniors’ circle of friends, which happen to be mostly outcasts. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a recurring theme in the film with midnight screenings and a fanzine.

The characters are all damaged in some way, making their friendship all the more meaningful. Sam and Charlie begin to have a more meaningful relationship beyond just friendship, but all kinds of issues pop up. Charlie then recalls the traumatizing experiences in his childhood that have shaped him into being who he is, and attempts to commit suicide.

The film concludes in typical high school fashion, and fades to black. It also offers a very honest exploration of a high school gay relationship where one of the guys isn’t “out” and wants to maintain his “image”. This isn’t typically anything that’s depicted in American cinema very often. We hear about Brokeback Mountain, but nobody ever hears about any high school relationship, probably because I can’t think of any other high school film in which this type of relationship is explored in any depth. Of course there’s some token loving relationships presented, or casual relationships, but nothing to the degree of maintaining the appearance of one of the partners as not being gay.

Despite its serious themes and realistic presentation of a myriad of “taboo” topics, The Perks of Being A Wallflower still manages to be a film that I’d happily watch over and over again. It blends the exploration of serious subjects with the typical high school fun in select spots. It also doesn’t manage to be painful for people to watch as the awkwardness of the topics broached are brushed away by the stellar acting of Lerman, Watson, and Miller. This role has helped Emma Watson break away from being stigmatized by being Hermoine Granger. I happen to think that this film will be one of her defining roles for her entire career – her performance is pitch perfect.

While music happens to be a significant part of this film, you won’t miss anything if you’re unable to hear it. The dialogue and acting more than make up for any loss that you may have by being unable to enjoy the selected music (the tagline on the movie poster is from the signature song of the film, used in the tunnel shots).

Adding to the appeal of this film – high school film master John Hughes read the novel, bought the rights, and attempted to write a screenplay based on it, but never finished it. Hughes wanted three actors to play the characters: Shia LaBeouf as Charlie, Kirsten Dunst as Sam, and Patrick Fugit as Patrick. Chbosky then finished the unfinished half of Hughes’ screenplay. I doubt that LaBeouf and Dunst could have pulled off their roles (depending on the timing of the filming that would have occurred, but Patrick Fugit would have been an excellent Charlie or Patrick).

In any case, I think that this is one of the rare films in which the author actually was an asset to the screenplay, much less directing the film itself. Chbosky has pulled this rare feat off, directing a film that anybody would have been proud of, much less going for the triple crown (writing, adapting, and directing). Highly recommended.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Rating: (****)
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Studio: Summit Entertainment

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