Charlie knows the world is a difficult place. He wonders how he might survive it, when the best people he’s known have not. Told entirely through Charlie’s letters to an anonymous friend, The Perks of Being a Wallflower spans his first year of high school. However, rather than just being an endless series of classrooms and corridors, lunch breaks and football games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower covers the spaces in between.
These in-between spaces are broadened by Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, and the dynamic brother-sister duo Patrick and Sam. Bill gives Charlie extra books to read – classics like This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and On The Road. Patrick and Sam accept Charlie into their fold of queers and nerds, extroverts and eccentrics. In these spaces Charlie finds his wallflower qualities are celebrated and supported, and that it’s okay (and even fun!) to participate in life as well as to be an observer of it.
The letter format allows Chbosky to focus on key events, as well as allowing the reader deep inside Charlie’s rich inner world. We witness failed relationships and horrible events filtered through Charlie’s confused attempts to understand. It’s like he wants to see the best in people, and is constantly disappointed by them. Similarly, we see his own intentions to be a nice person, and his awkward failings when the right thing to do by others is not the right thing to do by himself.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is saturated with emotion. As such, although it’s set in the early 90s, it is a book that is ageless and timeless. People will always fall in love with the wrong people. People will always make mistakes. And there will always be that one kid at the back of the room, trying to make sense of it all.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower film is scripted, produced, and directed by the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky. It stars Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson) as Charlie, Emma Watson (Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger) as Sam, and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) as Patrick. Did I have high hopes? Hell yes.
The good news is that the film perfectly captures the overwhelming emotion you feel when you are young. Remember when you felt something and it was so huge that it was bigger than your physical body? You had to dance or skip or cry or scream to even stand a chance of expressing it.
The acting is outstanding. Incredibly, Emma Watson is the weakest of the three leads – that’s how good it is. Lerman captures the highs and lows, the love and pain, and the sheer awkwardness of Charlie in a way I would not have imagined possible. From subtle tics and subversive glances, to his soft voice and quick smile, Lerman is never over-the-top in a role that would be easy to be. Likewise, Miller’s representation of Patrick – a proud gay teenager - is as in your face as you’d want it to be without falling into excess. (In fact, until Lerman’s breath-taking finale it’s possible to believe Miller is the true star of the film.) The supporting cast does not disappoint either.
It is not immediately obvious that the film is, like the book, set in the early 90s, which can only be a strength in connecting with a new generation of teenagers. What evidence remains of the era certainly resonates with those who lived through it. (Mix tape, anyone?) Chbosky has wisely refrained from saturating the film with a voice-over narrative, reserving it only for setting a few scenes. Viewers who have not read the book may wish to be cautioned that the film does not hold back in its representations of sexual activity, and recreational drug use.
The references to, and importance of, various books and pop culture is carried across in the adaptation. Music in particular forms the backbone of friendship between Charlie, Sam, and Patrick, as well as a brilliant soundtrack to the film. (Seriously.) The group’s involvement in theatrical showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is incredibly winning and also worth a mention. It is these moments of joy that infect the viewer with an intense love for the characters, and ensures that the importance that the novel places upon caring is also translated across.
The film packs as much of a punch as the book, albeit with less finesse due to the abbreviated form. The family relationships are severely pruned to enable focus on the social ones, and a few moving moments from the book are altered in a way that, I feel, lessens them. This is in no way to say the film is not worth seeing – do. It will make you want to dance and skip and cry and scream. And then read the book.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is released in Australian cinemas on 29 November. Thanks to Village Roadshow for facilitating this review.