Like an actual wallflower, this movie of teen angst takes pains to conceal its true depth. Set in suburban Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, in the waning days of the mix-tape era, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” comes on like an ordinary movie about a sensitive naif struggling to survive the casual slights of freshman year of high school. But what emerges from a seemingly stereotypical setting is a moving and disquieting meditation on trauma and survival.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a compulsive diarist, narrating both the events of his life and his troubled psyche in letters addressed to “dear friend.” He’s drawn out into the world by an unlikely friendship with two seniors: Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), who introduce Charlie to the counterculture of self-styled poets and freaks that have carved out a niche in opposition to the popular cliques.
The movie plays with these familiar high school movie dichotomies. For instance, Patrick’s outsized and flamboyant personality deflects his insecurities about his relationship with a male football star, who keeps his sexuality a secret from his friends, teammates and parents. Sam is trying to restore her reputation and self-respect after a dark, compulsive phase earlier in high school. Miss Watson is funny and unexpectedly sly in the role of mentor and confidant to Charlie, even though the time that has passed since her turn in the “Harry Potter” series marks her as a bit too old for high school. Mr. Miller delivers a remarkable and nuanced performance as Patrick, blurring the line between bluster and vulnerability.
Charlie’s literary ambitions are nurtured with the support of Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who dispenses extra-credit reading assignments and occasional snippets of wisdom. The film doesn’t overplay the connection, but Charlie is learning to see his own personal psychological muddle through the lens of the greatest hits of American rebellion, such as “On the Road” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” He may not be exactly normal, but he’s not in uncharted territory.
One of the oddities, if not quite a flaw, of “Perks” is that the characters’ problems and levels of self-awareness outstrip their tender ages. They are believably adolescent in some respects, but at times they have reservoirs of maturity, eloquence and forbearance that serve to keep the story on the rails at the expense of believability.
For a movie that gets very dark, the characters here spend a lot of time getting along with each other. Charlie isn’t escaping a twisted home life in getting involved in this older set. His parents are tender and affectionate. Charlie participates in the family’s Catholic faith, has solid relationships with his older siblings, and is particularly conflicted about how to help his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) ditch her abusive boyfriend.
The great success of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” lies in its ability to depict, without overexplaining, the sudden fits of memory that torment survivors of psychological trauma. Director Stephen Chbosky, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, masterfully translates the first-person epistolary structure of the book to film, using visual cues and interjecting very brief flashbacks to hint at the secret sources of the anguish that abides deep within Charlie, and makes him uncomfortable in his own skin.
TITLE: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
CREDITS: Written and Directed by Stephen Chbosky
RATING: PG-13 for profanity, mature situations, sexual themes, drug use, and violence
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS