DEBUT FEATURES: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (USA, 2012)
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman

IMDb Top 250: #250 (11/8/13)

In my review of Westworld two years ago, I spoke about the perils of novelists turning their hand to filmmaking. I argued that since "novelists are so attentive to verbal content... they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema." Cinema is both a visual and a narrative medium, and the best offerings in any given genre are a delicate balance of the two.
As it was with Michael Crichton, so The Perks of Being a Wallflower marks Stephen Chbosky's first crack at a feature film, adapting his own epistolary novel from 1999. His task is a little easier than Crichton's, in that the film is rooted in one genre rather than handling a story that combines elements of three or four. The end result is flawed and overly familiar, but it is one of the better examples of an author directing.
I spoke in my review of Beverly Hills Cop about how Hollywood is increasingly stuck in the 1980s, in terms of their filmmaking approaches and the kinds of stories they choose to tell. For all the bile and vitriol directed at Michael Bay (nearly all of which he deserves), we are still essentially living in the aftermath of Simpson and Bruckheimer. Current executives who grew up with The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles want to relive those supposedly halcyon days, and it's only a matter of time before the remake engine turns in their direction.
Considering that Perks is a lower-budget, more independently-spirited production, you'd like to think that it wouldn't suffer from any similar problems. But it is guilty of having its cake and eating it, in that it takes a fairly familiar, John Hughes-esque story about high school life and presents it as a zeitgeist moment for people coming of age in the early-2010s. Not every coming-of-age story needs a contemporary setting to have value, but it still feels disingenuous, if not outright dishonest.
Comparing Chbosky to Hughes is no mere lip service. The focus on outcasts (the wallflowers of the title) echoes the set-up of The Breakfast Club, in which a group of very different, very difficult people are brought together by fate and learn to live with each other. And like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, we're given a protagonist from whom we are slightly detached: albeit for different reasons, we never really want to be like them, only to observe what they do from a safe distance.
There's nothing wrong in principle with taking familiar genre tropes and using them to tell a slightly different story. But it becomes a problem when the filmmakers' relationship to said tropes is a little uncertain. The Breakfast Club and Heathers both work because they have a clear idea about their relationship to Hughes' conventions: one applauds and embraces them, the other rips them to shreds. Perks can't entirely decide which side it's on, alternating between earnest and arch in a way that can often be distracting.
At its heart, Perks is about the rollercoaster of teenager relationships, told through the eyes of someone who is separate from the familiar concerns due to youth and inexperience (or at least, that's what we're led to think). You could certainly argue that its uneven tone is supposed to reflect its impulsive protagonists, none of whom are meant to show the emotional control or stability that they will come to possess as adults. But even if we accept this, there is an overall tonal problem which relates to how clever or profound Chbosky believes he is being.
Because it can't ever decide how genuine it wants to be, we never entirely get a handle on Chbosky's protagonists or why their outsider nature is being celebrated in this fashion. In Heathers Winona Ryder's outsider status was clearly defined, and her loneliness became a springboard to explore deeper ideas of temptation, lust and independence that ultimately shaped her identity. Even though Heathers is intentionally heightened and exaggerated, being an extremely dark comedy, its characters often feel more rounded and believable than the characters in Perks.
Your ability to enjoy Perks relies on one simple decision, which relates to all the pop culture references and behaviours that are invoked of it. Either you will embrace the whole experience on an emotional level, believing in the mood and mind-set of the characters regardless of how conscious the period touches are. Or you will be prevented from doing this because these touches are so conscious they seem clunky, and will therefore find the film insufferable. It is possible to entertain both opinions throughout the running time, but ultimately one must trump the other.
One of the key sticking points in the film is the music. In addition to all the discussions about mix-tapes, which tread very close to High Fidelity, there are several big set-pieces whose choice of music makes or breaks the moment. We have Sam and Patrick's eccentric dancing to 'Come On Eileen' by Dexy's Midnight Runners, the discussions about 'Asleep' by The Smiths, and the now-famous tunnel sequence involving 'Heroes' by David Bowie. In each case the music is so much of its period that the choice seems smugly obvious, but on a purely emotional level, it works.
The other sticking point is how the film deals with the darker side of teenage life. While the novel drew controversy for its seemingly racy content, the film on the whole is very gentle. Even with the numerous parties that are depicted, there's no Animal House levels of depravity to deal with, or any real consequences of the drugs that are occasionally ingested. This is all fine, but it has the effect of making the final revelations surrounding Charlie feel completely out of place and tacked on. These later scenes about mental illness and child abuse require a very steady hand, and Chbosky doesn't entirely earn the right to cover them in this way.
If you can get beyond either of these things, or at least overlook them in favour of the characters' emotional state, then Perks still has much to offer that is enjoyable or fun. It's not laugh-out-loud stuff, but it's positioned more as a drama than an out-and-out comedy, and therefore that's to be expected. The only really hilarious moments involve the cast dressing up and acting out The Rocky Horror Show, which is played for the same campy laughs as the play and film that spawned them.
The film does have a number of good performances, which help to offset the arch feelings present in Chbosky's script. Logan Lerman does a very solid job as Charlie, particularly during the brownie scene where he dials things right down and prevents the character from quickly becoming obnoxious. Ezra Miller isn't quite as magnetic here as he is in We Need To Talk About Kevin, but he's still a compelling screen presence and he brings a lot of sly confidence to Patrick.
Emma Watson rounds out the main cast impressively as the free-spirited Sam, coming into her own in those tender moments where she and Charlie are just a little vulnerable towards each other. Elsewhere there is good support from Tom Savini as Patrick's shop teacher, and particularly from Paul Rudd as Mr. Anderson.
Perks is also technically accomplished, something that can't always be said for author-driven films. The film is shot by Andrew Dunn, best known for his work on The Madness of King George; he brings a lot of crisp colours to the proceedings, and the snowy scenes are particularly well done. Chbosky's compositions and shot choices aren't particularly ground-breaking, but his editing is slick and polished. For all the debates the musical choices may produce, the film does utilise its score very well in moving the action forward, and the film as a whole is very efficient.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an enjoyable addition to the coming-of-age canon, even if it doesn't do much to justify its glowing reputation. While many of its creative choices are either overly familiar or frustratingly smug, it makes up for this through the emotional attachment we have for the main performers. Its appeal is far from infinite, but it's still a nice way to pass the time.


NEXT REVIEW: Tarzan (1999)