In attempting to write a review for Stephen Chbosky‘s cinematic adaptation of his own novel of the same name, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I ran into a problem (a problem big enough that I’d feel the need to use frequent “I” statements in said review, a big no-no in my book). It’s impossible for me to write a review of Perks that would, in any way, be able to masquerade as an objective take on the material (and, of course, no review is ever wholly objective, and you’d do well to remember that straight away), because Chbosky’s book made an indelible mark on me as a teenager, one that I’ve never been quite able to shake.
Chbosky’s book was published on February 1, 1999. I got a copy of the book as a gift from my first boyfriend about two weeks later. For those of you not keeping track on my personal biography, I was fifteen in the winter of 1999, a sophomore in high school who, though lucky enough to have a ton of friends and great parents and good grades, still felt a bit awkward (being a bookworm and a movie buff and a modern art freak didn’t help — these weren’t cool things to be, yet). I’ll stop you there — yes, everyone felt awkward in high school, but the experience of being a teenager is a profoundly insular one, so most of us don’t know (often for quite some time) that everyone else felt really weird back then, too. It’s a terrible trick of the age.
Reading a book about that sort of awkwardness while also feeling awkward was immensely comforting, and Chbosky’s film is adept at capturing that same experience on screen. Watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time is eerily similar to reading “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” for the first time, though it’s consistently hard to differentiate between personal affection for the source material and the film’s ability to stand on its own legs.
The plot of Perks is quite simple – centered on high school freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman, played well with hangdog charm), the film follows the outsider as he attempts to navigate high school and his family while also trying to do something that seems almost impossible early on – make some friends. Charlie is an outcast and a loser for the most heartbreaking of reasons – he’s not exactly emotionally stable, his best friend committed suicide just months before, and there’s a secret lurking just inside his mind that he’s routinely busy trying to push away. High school is brutal as is, but for Charlie, it’s nearly impossible.
Charlie’s luck changes, however, when he gets up the guts to talk to Patrick (Ezra Miller, proving again to be the most promising talent of his generation, he’s simply riveting and electrifying in his role) at a football game (Charlie, of course, attends alone). The lone senior in Charlie’s freshman shop glass, Patrick is both a curious and an appropriate choice to serve the role as Charlie’s First Real Friend in High School; bawdy, loud, funny, vibrant, and unique, it’s hard to ignore Patrick (or, as most people insist on calling him thanks to a well-timed barb, “Nothing”), and being his friend also means not fading into the wallpaper. But Patrick also has a secret life, and it’s perhaps Charlie’s sense of it that draws him to his new pal. Also, Patrick has a super-hot stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson, not a perfect match for the role by any stretch, but a compelling pick nonetheless), who Charlie instantly falls in love with. Everything will surely be wonderful now, right?
One of the main challenges in bringing the book to the screen is that Chbosky’s source material is an epistolary novel, made up entirely of letters that Charlie writes to an anonymous pen pal that we never meet. Charlie wants to be a writer and he’s quite good at writing about people and events in his life in ways that still feel both suitable to a fifteen-year-old’s skills and acutely observed (Charlie’s real talent as a wallflower), so Chbosky’s scripting work isn’t as big a challenge as it could have been. Yet, there’s still something lost in the translation, and the film version of Perks comes across as more of a Greatest Hits version of the book, picked and plucked to tighten up a rambling story and to give it a (somewhat) cohesive narrative. Chbosky does, however, inject the film with the same ’80s-era details that run through the novel (especially when it comes to music, what’s up, David Bowie?) in a way that feels organic without being overbearing.
Yet, the filmmaker and author hasn’t strayed from the beating heart of the story. While the principal plotline of Perks may be simple, what always made the source material stand out (and what has also made the book subject to challenges) is the darkness lingering just underneath its “classic” high school story. The deeper questions haunt the book – what happened to Charlie’s best friend, Michael? what happened to his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey)? what is happening to his sister, Candace? – and Chbosky hasn’t chopped any of that from his film, though only one of those plotlines is treated with the attention such heavy stuff deserves.
Chbosky’s film has captured the tone and tenor of his book, but as emotionally evocative as it may prove to fans of his book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not nearly as effective in conveying that sense of honesty and wonder to those who haven’t read the book. It’s, simply put, a wonderful companion to its source material. Without the source, however, it’s not nearly as hard-hitting and resonant. Early in the film, Charlie explains to his pen pal why he’s chosen to write to her, a student at another school who is reportedly possessed of a moral compass few teens have, telling her “I need to know that these people exist.” Within the pages of Chbosky’s book and the frames of his film, they do. And that’s just about enough.
The Upside: Strong performances, lots of heart, frequent humor, unafraid of tackling tough subject matter. It is a perfect companion to its source material.
The Downside: Lacks the sort of clear narrative and direction that would enthrall an audience who has not read Chbosky’s book.
On the Side: Chbosky was one of the co-creators of beloved television series Jericho.