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‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

by Kaori Shoji

It’s not often you run into a film that makes you feel 16 years old again — and kinda good about it. An ode to the awkward years (or to the people who went through them) when each day was a nerve-racking ordeal involving high school hierarchies, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” softly takes your hand and tells you everything is going to be OK. Thank you, I needed that.

This is a rare film where the author of the original novel and the filmmaker are one and the same person. Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 best-seller was a prime target for Hollywood and indie producers alike. When a number of schools in the United States banned “Perks” from reading lists and syllabuses for being too libertine, that just added fuel to the fire.

Chbosky protected “Perks” from the raging winds, quietly laid the groundwork to swing his own adaptation and gathered an impeccable cast, consisting of “Harry Potter” graduate Emma Watson and the darkly handsome Ezra Miller (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”). Logan Lerman makes up the final corner of the triangle. Chbosky’s script strikes a delicate balance of energy between these three central characters.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Wallflower)
Rating
Director Stephen Chbosky
Run Time 102 minutes
Language English

The film is set in the early 1990s in a Pittsburgh suburb. Charlie (Lerman) is a high school freshman plagued by feelings of misfit inadequacy and the story progresses with his narration, as a letter written to an unseen friend. Charlie is intelligent and an unconventional thinker but also a full-fledged introvert, which means he spends vast amounts of time alone with books, his own thoughts and imaginary meetings with his deceased aunt (played by Melanie Lynskey).

Under different circumstances and in another movie, Charlie would have been thrown to the lions (jock bullies and their vicious girlfriends), but on Chbosky’s wonderful planet, he’s taken under the wing of a pair of enticing, world-weary seniors, Sam (Watson) and Patrick (Miller) — the only people Charlie has ever encountered who rate shyness and solitude far above what’s at the other end of the spectrum.

There are other wonderful characters, such as Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), an English teacher who makes brief but memorable appearances to talk to Charlie, offer some guidance and (most importantly) introduce him to J.D. Salinger. Punkish Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) becomes intensely interested in Charlie, though he nurses a crush on Sam; and intellectual pothead Bob (Adam Hagenbuch) alternates between dispensing wisdom and reefers.

“Perks” shows us the value of cultivating a unique personality during adolescence, of embracing solitude and introspection. Granted, all that stuff can cause a lot of angst and anxiety, especially when you’re leaning against a wall at a party watching all the beautiful, desirable kids being wildly popular. But as promised by the film’s title, there are perks, and one of them is an ability to hone an awareness of yourself and the world. “There’s so much pain,” says Charlie. “And I don’t know how not to notice it.” That seems like a good enough place to start.