We’ve all been there. Those moments — almost always among friends — when everything fits together in a fit of transcendental bliss. They’re fleeting, of course. Parties end. The sun rises. The next song comes on. Still, that intense sense of belonging — that feeling that envelops and excites the deepest reaches of your soul — well, that never really goes away.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower knows this. Skillfully adapted from Stephen Chbosky’s best-selling 1999 novel about a lonely boy and the outcasts he befriends, Wallflower is big-hearted and earnest in its approach to the pleasure and pain of the teenage condition. It’s also a precise adaptation, thanks to Chbosky’s unusual role as the movie’s writer and director.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
As in the novel, Wallflower is vaguely set in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, well before cell phones and Facebook and all those sorts of distractions. (This anachronism, like so much else in Wallflower, evokes a wistful sort of feeling about youth.) We meet Charlie (Logan Lerman) before his first day of high school, writing an anonymous letter to an unnamed stranger. Dreading what’s to come, he literally counts the days left before he can go to college. His melodrama isn’t an overreaction, either. His best friend shot himself months earlier, he’s plagued by an undisclosed mental illness, and he has mysterious hallucinations about his late aunt (Melanie Lynskey).
Charlie is an exaggeration of a familiar experience. He’s a victim of soft bullying — the sort of snickering and mocking that we’ve all suffered and wielded, at various times — and it pesters him into a perpetual state of shy brooding. So, when he sees an opportunity to meet Patrick (Ezra Miller), a flamboyant social pariah, he jumps at the chance. Patrick introduces him to Sam (Emma Watson), another outcast with a loose reputation, and before long he’s a part of their group.
The only problem? These kids are too damn cool. They listen to The Smiths, dress better than most adults, casually experiment with drugs and always know where to find a party. (They even stage a live rendition of Rocky Horror at the local movie theater.) Chbosky wants us to treat Patrick and Sam as self-confident losers, but Wallflower simply has too much awe for their way of life to treat them that way. Charlie has to learn that his new friends are vulnerable and flawed, but unfortunately — and this is a rare case where Chbosky’s movie doesn’t match his novel — we don’t see much that proves it.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to criticize The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It fetishizes alternative culture. It’s melodramatic. It’s self-indulgent. It treats every moment as a moment. And yet, for many people, all of these things reflect what it felt like to be a teenager. We forget the normalcy and the boredom. Your teenage years were not as dramatic as Charlie’s, but that doesn’t mean that his story doesn’t resonate.
It certainly did for me: I first read Wallflower when I was 14. I devoured the novel in a single night and then stayed up until dawn desperately hoping to meet someone as witty as Patrick or as lovely as Sam. As silly as it sounds now, I also wanted Charlie’s tragedy. Getting to dive back into Chbosky’s story in a movie theater was, for me, an opportunity to remember all of that. For an instant, I was reliving it. It was a gift. The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not a great movie, but to me, that’s why it’s an essential one.