When was the last time a teenage coming-of-age story was brought to the screen and deemed a classic? Films like ‘Stand By Me’ and the extensive work of John Hughes instantly come to mind, but that was some time ago, and now the plight of the teenager seems to be relegated to gross-out comedies and weak subplots on ‘Glee’. Literature has done much better, and the past decade has seen the emergence of some real gems exploring what it is to be a teenager and move through the tumultuous experience of high school and growing up. Perhaps the crown jewel of the genre, though, is Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’, a book so beloved and acclaimed that it is now counted amongst the great works of modern literature. A film adaptation was inevitable, and in this instance, Chbosky fills the roles of both screenwriter and director, the result of which has become one of the most highly anticipated, and concerning, releases this year. What if the film doesn’t live up to its literary heights?
It’s 1992, and Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a fifteen-year old freshman on his first day of high school. He is small, meek, nervous and unassuming. In an effort to connect with this new experience, he begins a one-sided correspondence with a penpal he has never met, and never intends to meet. Through his letters, he recounts his meeting and acceptance into a group of social misfits, all seniors, who adopt Charlie into their protection. Chief among them are step-bother and sister Sam (Emma Watson), a spunky and defiant spirit, and Patrick (Ezra Miller), self-assured and flamboyant. Their close friendship with Charlie invigorates his solitary existence, and forces him to face the demons in his life he has tried so hard to escape.
Having the writer of the novel both write and direct the film adaptation is a dangerous decision. Adaptation requires perspective and fearlessness when dissecting the material, and usually the original writer lacks these qualities. Thankfully, Chbosky is the exception to the rule. He knows exactly what this story needs in order to be translated to the screen as effectively as possible, distilling the novel when necessary and expanding just enough to fill the gaps. There is nothing showy or self-consciously cinematic about either the screenplay or its execution. This is filmmaking at its most simple and straightforward, and in every respect, this is exactly how ‘Wallflower’ should be. Within its simplicity, the film soars to heights we haven’t seen in a film in a long time. Chbosky allows the film to be rather than force it into a direction where it doesn’t fit. Often, issues such as mental illness, bullying, suicide, homosexuality, child abuse and teenage sex are handled clumsily in teen drama, but Chbosky presents so beautifully that these are a fact of life, nothing more, and rather than water them down or build them into moments of saccharine melodrama, they land as they should, bloody and raw and ugly and, often, very funny. What is most central to the tremendous success of ‘Wallflower’ is the violent beating heart at the centre of it - in fact more heart than any film that I have seen in many, many years. Every element of the film is no more than technically proficient, but that is a good thing. The camera, the score, the production design, everything, understands its place in the puzzle and executes its task as effectively as possible. The filmmaking here is nothing special, but somehow, is also utterly breathtaking.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER - TRAILER
Just as breathtaking is the flawless cast. Emma Watson decimates ten years at Hogwarts with her performance as Sam, demonstrating just how powerful and skilled an actor she is. Her performance is sexy, vivacious and painfully honest, and she never bats an eyelid when dealing with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Even her American accent is perfect. With this performance, she heralds the true start to the exciting and dynamic career ahead of her. Equally spectacular is Ezra Miller as Patrick, who gives a performance far removed from the controlled menace of ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ (2011). In his hands, Patrick is the breath of fresh air we needed in the portrayal of gay teenagers, with spirit, conviction and unbounded energy. He and Watson make a formidable pair. The supporting cast is wonderfully just that, with some impressive adults including Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott and Paul Rudd delivering beautiful and subtle performances devoid of ego. There is an understanding where the centre of this film is, and instead of the adults in Charlie’s world feeling token or fulfilling comic relief duties, they are fascinating, nuanced and completely believable.
The true achievement of ‘Wallflower’, however, is the wallflower himself. Logan Lerman is an utter revelation as Charlie. This is one of the most powerful and devastating performances of a teenage character the screen has seen in a very long time. Lerman demonstrates an intelligence and sensitivity way beyond his previous work, embodying this beautiful outsider totally and utterly. Charlie is a damaged soul, and those scars are written across Lerman’s face, and visible in his eyes. Without a relatable and sympathetic Charlie the film would have collapsed, but what Lerman achieves is some kind of miracle; his might be one of the best performances of the year.
For much of the middle section of the film, we follow episode after episode in Charlie’s life, but it's clear we are moving towards some sort of reckoning, and the final act of ‘Wallflower’ pushes both the characters and the audience to the edge. Charlie’s collapse into utter despair rips you apart. Chbosky and his team need to be commended for not allowing this sequence to descend into melodrama, and for allowing the raw violence of teenage depression and suicide to be presented with such honesty. Here, the simplicity principle truly pays off, and a lack of embellishment forces us to face these devastating moments head on. The final stretch of the film will leave you breathless and shattered.
By no means is ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’ perfect, but perhaps that’s just what makes it such a powerful piece of filmmaking. It isn’t trying to pretend to be anything other than what it is, and that level of honesty is what makes it so glorious, so beautiful, so affecting and so important. Being a teenager is no longer an idealised fantasy or a gritty battleground. It just is what it is. Chbosky has defied all expectations with his adaptation, honouring his novel but also crafting a classic in its own right, and ushering in three tremendous talents in the process. ‘Wallflower’ left me broken, emotional and exhilarated, and buzzing with the faith that film can still effect and entertain. We might have seen new works from legends such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Ridley Scott in the past few months, but I have a feeling that, when I’m deciding my list in a few weeks, ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’ could be my pick for the best film of the year. It might even be a masterpiece.