Imagine a world of American high school cliches. A world of jocks, nerds and cheerleaders, where teachers’ pets are bullied and beaten, and all anyone wants to do is find their place in the chaos of teenage social circles. You’d be forgiven for thinking it all sounds familiar. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, from the Breakfast Club to Back to the Future and every ‘80s teen movie in between. But what makes the Perks of Being a Wallflower stand out today is its powerful underlying themes and emotional message, tied together with strong acting and writing.
Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel also marks a confident stint as director. This is the work of somebody both absolutely clear of his vision and of the themes he wants to convey, resulting in a very personal project. The book was published in 1999 and it is unclear when the film is set, but it is definitely a heartfelt love letter to fashions of bygone times. The word ‘hipster’ gets banded about a lot these days, and I imagine the more cynical of us would slap the word across the film with contempt. The protagonist is an aspiring writer who works on a vintage typewriter; the Smiths and David Bowie feature prominently on mixtapes, and Chbosky clearly has a special place in his heart for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perks of Being a Wallflower treads a fine line between style and pretentiousness, and threatens to stray on several occasions (the ‘we are infinte’ sequence springs to mind) but for the most part it avoids becoming annoying. The book wallows for a lot longer in its ostentatiousness but it has certainly been toned down for the film, possibly to appeal to more mainstream audiences.
However, what really lies at the heart of the film is an emotionally damaged teenager struggling to fit in with his peers. This is a very adult teenage film – drugs, sex, homosexuality and death are themes that feature prominently and Chbosky is not afraid to shy away from the important issues here.
The emotional weight is a heavy one indeed, but Perks of Being a Wallflower manages to make its point tastefully. The film begins to flag halfway, but the story concludes in such a beautiful way that its midpoint lapse can be easily forgiven. Featuring a strong script and powerful performances from Percy Jackson’s Logan Lerman, Emma Watson in her first non-Potter role and Ezra Miller hot off his haunting performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Perks of Being a Wallflower deserves a lot more attention than it seems to warrant on the surface. For those looking for a straight-up teenage high school film, this isn’t for you. But for those wanting a little more to think about, the film touches on some very emotional and affecting themes. It is not for the faint-hearted, but the message is one that deserves sitting up and listening to.