Occasionally a film aimed at and about teenagers comes along that doesn’t feel sentimental, patronising and clichéd. 2010’s Easy A was a good example. This film, directed by Stephen Chbosky and adapted from his own novel, is a more serious work but it also fits into this rare category. It is a wonderful, feel-good film. Sure, it gets dark in places, and doesn’t fail to recognise the pains and traumas of being a teenager (and the fact that so much of it is out of one’s control), but it has an overwhelming sense of optimism about it.
The film is headed by three young actors that all deserve Oscar nominations. The central character is Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. I have liked Lerman in the past, even if he has acted in rather mediocre material. Here he plays a teenager starting a new school and trying to make friends. He is a bit of a loner, and it is suggested from the start that he has psychological issues. He befriends an outspoken and very funny older guy named Patrick (an utterly brilliant Ezra Miller) who introduces Charlie to his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson).
Charlie’s friends both have their own issues they are trying to deal with. Sam has bulimia and is dating an older guy. Patrick is gay – something that he rightly believes shouldn’t be an issue, but his boyfriend refuses to be open about their relationship due to his extremist Christian father.
At home, Charlie’s family life is also far from perfect. His sister is in an abusive relationship with a very odd young man, and his parents don’t seem to completely understand Charlie’s insecurities. He seems to be able to connect with his older brother, but he is away at university for the majority of the year.
As the film goes on, we observe Charlie and the people around him trying to negotiate their sexual freedom, responsibilities and problems of their past. It is implied our central character is disturbed by memories of his aunt who died in a tragic accident when he was young, although the depth and nature of his guilt and pain about this incident is only truly revealed at the end of the film.
Paul Rudd, playing a kind teacher who gives Charlie books to read, is a surprising highlight. I’ve always liked Rudd’s acting, and it’s refreshing to see him in a film that doesn’t rely on bad taste humour and misogynist jokes.
Emma Watson is also a revelation. At first I was a bit unsure about her presence in the film, especially when she was introduced in a way that felt as if the filmmakers were saying AND HERE WE HAVE THAT FAMOUS GIRL FROM HARRY POTTER! But after this bumpy introduction, I found it impossible not to get swept up in her beautiful portrayal of a complex and fascinating character.
There were a couple of aspects about the film I was a little uneasy about. The light treatment given to extremely dangerous drug abuse and the non-consensual marijuana-drugging of the lead character didn’t sit well with me. Some people may also find the episodic nature of the film a little tiring, as the narrative wheels in a certain theme, deals with it, then carries on to the next one. But Chbosky admirably tries to keep the film tight and entertaining, and it does work well as a feature film.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower could have easily been saccharin, drippy nonsense, but the combined efforts of the filmmakers and actors make it anything but. I think if people go into it with an open mind (and don’t will themselves into hating Emma Watson), they will find it a wonderfully rewarding experience. 2012 has given us a number of gems, but this is one of the most endearing and uplifting.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), directed by Stephen Chbosky, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One, Certificate 15.