Chbosky's 'Perks' Adaptation is Vibrant, Emotional, Reverent

Directed by: Stephen Chobsky; Runtime: 102 minutes
Grade: A-

Since being published in 1999, Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" has frequently loomed near the top of the ALA's "most challenged books" chart for situations and themes centering on young outsiders, enough to make conservative foreheads sweat. Underneath a sincere exploration of sexuality, drug use, and the grief and depression that fuel suicide, this epistolary coming-of-age story is instead much closer to a comforting embrace than something to fret over; and, really, the "potentially banned" label only strengthens the resolve to seek out stories like this for their candor. The novel maintains a tricky balance while telling high-schooler Charlie's story, between hard-edged honesty and a message of reassurance, which might make it difficult to adapt to film in a way that values the sensibilities of its target audience. Luckily, Chbosky takes the challenge as screenwriter and director here, who welcomes us onto this island of misfit toys in a vivid, infectiously bittersweet adaptation that justly respects his intentions.

Set in the early '90s, the book consists of a series of letters written from the point-of-view of Charlie (Logan Lerman), an incoming freshman in high-school whose best friend committed suicide several months prior. Confiding in a stranger he refers to only as "friend", his letters -- more cathartic than journal entries, click-clacked on a typewriter or handwritten -- reveal his perspective as he tries to acclimate to the change in his life and participate on a social level. Chbosky's film does the same thing, but differently: it's almost as if the mysterious stranger on the other end has visualized his stories in a realistic, mature way as they're reading each letter, essentially presenting us with their interpretation of the setting, characters, and how unspoken events play out. More importantly, it provides a third-person outlook on Charlie's emotional and mental introversion instead of directly within the space of his head, and how it factors into the loss of his aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), the only person who's really "gotten" him in his life.

Charlie's experiences largely focus on his leap-of-faith relationship with a group of out-crowd graduating seniors, namely Patrick (Ezra Miller), an ostentatious guy dealing with being gay in a high-school environment, and Sam (Emma Watson), a pixie-haired girl with a past reputation of being a lush -- whom Charlie quickly becomes fond of. The awkwardness of their first encounter, over nachos at a football game, leads into the framework that The Perks of Being a Wallflower relishes: the off-kilter bond that forms as their social circle brings Charlie into their fold while learning to grasp his discomfited mannerisms, driven by discovering music and learning secrets at dimly-lit parties. Alongside that, they also show how Charlie incorporates his social awakening with his mental state outside their circle, namely with his older sister (Nina Dobrev), who dates an overbearing boy with a pony tail, and extracurricular lessons with his literature professor, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), enhancing his writing ability by assigning him books to dissect.

Hazy, resonant photography from Crazy, Stupid, Love cinematographer Andrew Dunn makes the events in The Perks of Being a Wallflower appear as if they're filtered memories of an antiquated time, which make Chbosky's film feel both nostalgic and, in a way, timeless. Contemporary and classic tunes popular in the '90s fill the air in scenes such as where the teenagers hop into a truck bed and glide through Pittsburgh's amber-lit Fort Pitt tunnel as if they're flying, embracing a sense of freedom and abandon as they move from one stage to the next. Scenes at school dances and after-parties feature vérité-like movement that evokes authenticity, juxtaposed against a few subtle artistic flourishes illustrating Charlie's distorted reality -- either "under the influence" or just caught up in his tumultuous mental state -- that feature blurred motion and soul-thumping beats. It wouldn't be unreasonable to accuse these scenes of being romanticized, especially those where Charlie fixates on Sam, but that's the way recollections often work under a melancholy veil, even in instances where the world turns upside-down.

Chbosky understands the variety of his audience, from young adults currently enduring similar situations to mature viewers with those experiences long behind them, and he finds a way to take the book's edge down a notch so that the material retains its magnificence while avoiding some vulgarity. This isn't an easy task to accomplish, where Charlie's friends rope him into the corset-'n-garter world of Rocky Horror Picture Show and (without pressure) afford him the opportunity to get high. They're central components to this being an honest illustration of his metamorphosis, though, and Chbosky's inexperienced direction handles them in a surprisingly conscientious way, making Charlie a believable, sensitive sponge among his new environment. Naturally, the film lacks certain elements of his character's growth that are more articulate in the book, such as how Charlie uses the contextual knowledge he picks up from the novels he's assigned from Mr. Anderson, but their absence is filled with sequences that emphasize his desperation, intellect, and confusion in other ways.

A huge part of the film's overarching success lies in the chemistry between the actors, and how this assortment of quasi-pariahs and authority figures interact with Logan Lerman's barefaced, heartrending complexity as Charlie. Ezra Miller takes the commanding presence he imparts on the likes of We Need to Talk About Kevin and tempers it with absorbing charisma as Patrick, adding depth and timbre to a gay young adult who's eager to socialize his freshman friend. Paul Rudd's subdued personality works exceptionally well as Mr. Anderson, an observant mentor or sorts, while Mae Whitman (Scott Pilgrim) and Erin Wilhelmi gracefully fill out the rest of their clique as Mary Elizabeth and Alice, whom embolden the background ambience with talk of horror films and philosophy. The wonder of The Perks of Being a Wallflower comes in the tender chemistry between Charlie and Sam, though, where a smashing typecast-bucking turn from Emma Watson meshes with Lerman's uncomfortable infatuation. They're consistent entities whom effortlessly support the film's ideas.

Chbosky's appreciation for the emotional fabric of his characters is observable from start to finish, which makes the times when he underscores harder themes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- abuse, grief, loving the wrong people -- all the more poignant. Flashbacks of repressed memories and quick shifts in the group's perception of Charlie escalate into an unpretentious emotional crescendo near the end, gathering the themes addressed across the story into a climax that successfully tiptoes the line between earnestness and melodrama. Part of what's being witnessed here is the metal-testing of a talented could-be author, whose experiences might become the thematic backbone to what he might pen himself in the future. This idea is vibrantly realized as Charlie's story comes to a close; the ache of disappointment, loss of innocence, and an inability to control things takes shape in a moving final expression that, while admittedly seeing things through rose-tinted glasses, articulately brings this reverent-yet-tweaked adaptation full-circle.

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