First, let’s do away with any misconceptions – The Perks of Being a Wallflower is anything but perky. As fans of the 1999 novel on which the film is based will attest, Perks could not be farther from your standard happy-go-lucky teen movie fare.
It is the story of the shy, friendless Charlie and his quest to fit in as he begins his freshman year of high school. He is truly a “wallflower” – lunching alone; speaking to no one; too afraid to even raise his hand in class, lest he attract too much attention to himself. A time in his past when he “got bad” and spent time in hospital is often alluded to darkly. However, he soon meets Patrick and his step-sister Sam, who happily draw Charlie into their group of friends and make him feel, finally, that he is welcome somewhere. Of course this happiness only lasts a short while, and those dark events of Charlie’s past rear their heads once more.
Stephen Chbosky, author of Perks, is at the helm of the film adaptation, and naturally treats his source material with the utmost respect. That’s not to say the source material deserves that respect – occasionally the dialogue can veer into drippy sentimentality, and the drama gets a tad overwrought. The chronological setting of the film is unclear, though the eagle-eyed viewer can gather from the prevalence of calf-length plaid skirts and the use of “Come On Eileen” as a school dance floor-filler that it is set sometime in the late 80s or early 90s.
Most of the publicity for Perks emphasises the film’s status as Emma Watson’s post-Potter debut, but the more impressive performances are by her co-stars. In the character of Charlie, Logan Lerman has found a much better showcase for his talent than in his breakout role in Percy Jackson & the Olympians. His voice trembles; his eyes rove about, constantly searching for something, someone. Social anxiety breathes from his every pore. A natural standout in the supporting cast is the ethereally beautiful Ezra Miller playing the proudly gay Patrick, who is having trouble with his closeted boyfriend. Mae Whitman (of Arrested Development fame) emerges from Watson’s shadow in spectacular fashion as Charlie’s horrifically selfish first girlfriend.
Indeed, Watson’s character is the only thing weighing down what is an engrossing and highly enjoyable teen film. Her American accent is patchy, and not helped by the dodgy lines of dialogue she is given – “C’mon, let’s go be psychos together” being one of the more cringey, contrived lines her character is forced to speak. The “manic pixie dream girl” trope, unheard of when Chbosky first penned Perks, has now become a teen movie staple, and Sam is now just another character in a long line of quirky-yet-damaged gals with a “good” taste in music.
A springboard for Watson’s film career? Possibly, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is more than that; a smarter, meatier alternative to the cheesy rom-com of the month.