Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower at the Landmark Bridge on Saturday night.

Before opining about the film, I wanted to comment on the Pittsburgh literary scene.  Although not explicitly stated, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in Pittsburgh (as in Pennsylvania; not Pittsburg, CA).  For a while in the late 1990s and 2000s, it seemed like Pittsburgh a rising literary metropolis.  I remember liking The Wonder Boys (2000) with Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire & Robert Downey Jr.  That film was based on a 1995 Michael Chabon novel of the same title.  Chabon's debut novel was the well received The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988).  Although my memory may be in error, I seem to recall more film & novels set in Pittsburgh around a decade ago.  Although there are clues, it is left unstated that The Perks of Being a Wallflower was set in the early 1990s...not that removed from my own high school years.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson & Ezra Miller; directed by Stephen Chbosky; (2012) - Official Website

Director Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel which the film is based upon.

Wallflower was a deeply moving film for me.  Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an introverted high school freshman.  As he begins the school year, he is unable to make friends until he approaches Patrick (Ezra Miller), a flamboyant senior in his freshman shop class.  Patrick introduces him to his circle of friends - his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson) who suffers from low self-esteem due to child molestation, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) a Buddhist Punk and Alice a kleptomaniac.  Patrick is a not-so-closeted homosexual who is having an affair with the deeply closeted QB of the high school football team.

This group forms a tight-knit bond which is vert healthy for Charlie.  Part of Charlie's isolation stems from his best friend having committed suicide a few months earlier.  However, Charlie is repressing other memories which causes his social dysfunction.  Charlie is riding along nicely until Mary Elizabeth asks him to the Sadie Hawkins dance.  Clearly infatuated with Sam, Charlie accepts Mary Elizabeth's invitation.  The more dominant Mary Elizabeth quickly decides they are a couple and Charlie meekly goes along until a game of Truth or Dare makes clear his preference from Sam.

I don't want to reveal to much of the plot because what drew me into the film is the depiction of these teenagers with the fickleness, the cruelty of the school social caste system, the missed opportunities and general sense of teenage angst.  These issues resonated with me.  Although I was never molested or had closeted homosexual trysts, I could relate to these characters in ways which surprised me given the distance of time and experience.

Clearly, Chbosky is tapping into something universal.  Wallflower is not as dark as Donnie Darko but scaling back the humor of some of John Hughes' classic films while covering some of the same ground.  Obviously sexual abuse and orientation never entered the Hughes universe, but it never really registered in my teenage universe.  Probability and hindsight convinces me that some of my classmates suffered through these issues.  My only reservation about Wallflower is that it implied teenagers needed something traumatic in their youths to be misfit and lonely.

Lerman is clearly the lead character with Miller receiving the second most screen time.  Those two shine but it is Emma Watson as the vulnerable but winsome Sam who shines brightest.  Whitman in the flashiest role nails down the contradictory elements of an intelligent but socially awkward teenage girl.  Those four actors and characters elevate Wallflower to something special.

Also, Chbosky's script never pulls its punches.  The emotional impact of several situations (with the outsized importance that only teenagers can muster) rings true.  He follows "the formula" enough to be familiar but avoids the tropes which puts a fresh spin on the teenage coming-of-age film.

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