Friday, October 19, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Stephen Chbosky


When you see a film adaptation as good as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it ponders the question: why aren't more authors trusted with the film adaptations of their work? Then you stand back and you realize that the answer is simple. Writing novels and making movies are two different animals. Novels are too pretentious and insulated; cinema is too vain and eager to please. And not to mention the abundance of evidence that occasionally, the original author may in fact be the worst person to translate their story to the silver screen. This is especially not the case when it comes to Stephen Chbosky and his adaptation of his 1999 novel.

The wallflower referenced in the title is Charlie (Logan Lerman), whose beginning the awkward hell that is known as high school. Dealing with the suicide of his friend only months before - and already an introvert with a tendency for "bad moments" - finding a place to sit in the cafeteria seems like a tall task, let alone finding friends. His older sister, Candace (Nora Dobrev), sits at a "Seniors Only" table, and all the old friends who used to speak to him in middle school now barely make an attempt to say hi to him. So, like most of the shy teenagers broken into the horrific realities of high school cliques, he sits alone, hiding his face behind a book hoping it will make him invisible.

But there's some good moments. His English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) takes a liking to him and even begins giving Charlie books along the lines of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Better yet, Charlie makes friends with an energetic, outgoing senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller), who then introduces him to his step sister Sam (Emma Watson). Almost immediately, Charlie is taken in with their misfit group of friends, which also includes the highly intelligent and highly opinionated Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), the goth kleptomaniac Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) and the weed-on-demand Bob (Adam Hagenbuch). Charlie loves this ragtag bunch, mostly because of their acceptance of him. Most of all, though, he's completely infatuated with the beautiful Sam, despite her self-destructive tendencies when it comes to the men she falls for.

His freshman year is an eventful one. He continues to read all of the books that Mr. Anderson gives him outside of class and even writes reports on them. Patrick and Sam take him to all kinds of parties, including ones that introduce him to LSD and marijuana brownies. They go to Rocky Horror shows where Patrick plays Frank-N-Furter. It seems like the freshman year I would have killed to have. But Charlie is still haunted by bouts of anxiety and depression brought on by terrible moments in his past. One of those is the death of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynsky), his favorite family member that died in a car accident. His mother (Kate Walsh) and father (Dylan McDermott) do their best to stay on top of their son's behavior and attitude, but as Charlie pushes forward into the adolescent world of life and love, there are some things that Charlie must face on his own.

I must admit that I came into this screening with baggage as I was one of many in the early 2000's who was completely immersed in Chbosky's brilliant novel about coming-of-age in the 90's. As a twelve-year-old, I read hoping that I would have my own Patrick and Sam to teach me about making out and The Smiths. It's hard to imagine a better retelling of one of my favorite books than the one that Chbosky created himself. It's made with a brilliant eye for everything that made the original story so fantastic: the music, the styles, and especially the characters. Despite the various mental hangups that Charlie has, it's hard not to feel totally aligned with his high school experience - well, at least, it's not very hard for me.

I can't imagine how easy it would have been to get lost in your own minutia when adapting your own material. Chbosky's apparent cinematic knowledge is showcased splendidly as he finds the perfect balance between including all of the moments within the book, while appropriately allowing room for air and letting the story take best advantage of the visual medium. Like the novel, Charlie narrates from letters he is writing to an anonymous friend, but the film wisely avoids drowning itself in voiceover, letting the story tell itself at any moment possible. Winding through topics such as Patrick's secret homosexual relationship, a few of the characters history of sexual abuse, and the ever growing romantic tension between Sam and Charlie, Chbosky glides through it all fluently without the crutch of having all those pages to explain everything. It's legitimately surprising that this is his first feature.

It's hard to find a more perfect Sam (at least visually) than Emma Watson, whose down-to-Earth beauty fits perfectly with her non-conformist attraction to the motley crew she hangs out with. Watson and Miller, as the two main catalysts for Charlie's freahman year renaissance, carry most of the film's external energy and bring the story to life just as they did in the novel. I do not envy the job that Logan Lerman had to do of visually creating Charlie's internal complexity while still keeping him an overall mellow figure. But Lerman (of Percy Jackson fame) does it to near perfection, embracing the anxiety that seeps bellow the surface at all times. Special kudos should be given, as well, to McDermott who establishes a fantastic portrait of steady fatherhood, in very limited screen time.

I honestly thought that my love for this book would lead to me discounting the film. How could they possibly do it justice? Especially a book which relies so heavily on internal monologue, like Salinger's Catcher. I never really got my own high school version of Patrick and Sam that I wanted so badly. After a while, I stopped looking for them and had my own experience, made my own friends who were slightly less sparked elitists than the ones Charlie meets. I graduated realizing the importance of everyone visualizing the occasionally viscous, often gratifying experience of high school in their own individual way and I became my own person that way. Which in the end, is what Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about. But for 103 minutes in that theater, I got to reexperience that freshman year that I always wished that I'd had. And it was just as great as I remembered.

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