Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – Review

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a charmingly sincere and humorous yet emotionally charged high school drama. The film is about a troubled freshman, Charlie, starting his first day of high school. He has no friends and feels invincible. That is, until two seniors Sam and Patrick take him under their wing and introduce him to a new world, bringing about both good and bad emotions in Charlie.

High school dramas and comedies have been done well in the past (things like Freaks and Geeks, Rebel Without a Cause and for most of us: the films of John Hughes, among others). With The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer-director Stephen Chbosky has captured both the good parts (hanging out with friends, young love and having your whole life in front of you) and the anguish (being an outsider, being bullied and the emotional development of our teenage years) of the high school experience. And, like most high school films, he has approached the topic with a protagonist that is not one of the cool kids. Charlie is emotionally fragile and even unstable (having been in treatment following the suicide of his best friend), but he is generally a very nice and innocent guy. Using Charlie as the audience’s window, Chbosky explores high school in a much different way than viewers are use to – in that, Charlie is not just interested in girls, sports and other pursuits that drive typical high school students. All he really wants are friends, and more specifically people he can connect with so he does not have to feel so alone. Being alone causes him to overthink everything in his life, which leads him back towards his destructive behavior (as it did after his friend’s suicide). Thus, Charlie approaches life from a very sincere and naïve place, making the seemingly more mundane experiences feel fresh, grand and even funny. The audience cares about Charlie, even though he may come from a place somewhat foreign to them, because there is a piece of him that they all can relate to – be it him being an outsider, having his first love (or crush) or finally finding a place where he feels comfortable. If anything, this is a film about Charlie coming into his own (much like a coming-of-age story).

Chbosky is also not afraid to take on the more difficult and darker subjects that teens face with his narrative (the film somewhat reminds me of It’s Kind of a Funny Story in this manner, but this has much more of an impact on the viewer). In doing so, he puts an emotional strain of the audience, as he has done such a great job of relating Charlie to the audience and making them care about him. His supporting characters are also well drawn and complex. The emotional drama builds throughout, and while Chbosky does defuse a lot of it with humor for the first three-fourths of the film he does not shy away from allowing the film to have a strong emotional impact on the audience. The character journeys (specifically Charlie, Patrick and Sam’s) mean something to the audience. Chbosky is not intimidated by a general feeling that audiences and studios seemingly just want fun and entertaining teen movies. His characters feel real, with hopes and dreams – and most importantly flaws and important struggles that they try to overcome, struggles that the audience can take stock in and feel something about. This is not just another throwaway high school film. This has something important to say about being at that stage in life and those experiences. And hopefully, taking on the darker and difficult subjects and getting the audience to care will help change the way people treat others in the future (to not bully others, not use people, not push people to the edge where they feel like there is no escape, not treat people abhorrently because they might be different, and not turn your back on someone in need just to save face or because it is easier).

There is also a nostalgic aspect to the film. Not just in the time period, though that does come through in the great soundtrack, but to the wonder and excitement of being young, when everything is new. Again getting back to Charlie as the protagonist, his innocence gives the audience almost a pure and fresh way to relive some of those experiences, while still having the nostalgia of remembering their own similar experiences in comparison. It is this part of good teen films that seems so appealing – the going back. And yet, Chbosky has a lot of pain here too to go with the joy, pain that most of us can relate to as well in some way.

Structure wise, Chbosky has veered away from most high school and teen films. At first this seems like a film about making friends and finding love (a bit like Mitch’s journey in Dazed and Confused), but then it delves much deeper into the characters and their more rooted issues. Thus, structurally the film seems like it has different sections, rather than being just one flowing narrative. Yet, Chbosky manages to keep the audience’s attention, even when switching dramatic focus, by keeping the narrative character driven. While most teen films are about a character or characters trying to accomplish something, this film is about the characters just being, and the issues and happiness they have – their coming to understand a deeper truth about themselves.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the more dramatically heavy teen films (especially one targeted at teens). Though, it still has enough wonderful humor to keep things light enough for the audience to breath. It is the first great teen drama/comedy for this decade.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Stephen Chbosky’s shooting style for the film is mostly straightforward (in terms of an indie drama) with a few stylish choices to fit the tone. Really, his film is about the performances and the characters, and in this he has done an excellent job capturing great work. I look forward to what he does next.

Michael Book’s score works well emphasizing the tone and emotions of the film, though it is the soundtrack that steals the show (stuff like The Smith’s Asleep, while Cracker’s Low felt very nostalgic – I just remember listening to that song a lot in the summer of 1994 watching the World Cup). Andrew Dunn’s photography and lighting are fantastic. The camera is intimate at times and detached in others, mirroring the feelings of the characters. Production designer Inbal Weinberg’s also does fine work. The color scheme of the film seems to play an active role in the emotional make-up of the characters, while the sets play toward the more general themes in the film – being inviting and foreign when need be (for example: the set for Sam’s bedroom seems like a perfect fit for Charlie to feel comfortable, just as he is in love with her, while the school halls where he is often bullied feel very desolate).

The power of the film, however, is built from Chbosky’s great script and the very good performances he has garnered. There are a lot of young actors in the film. Among the supporting players, Johnny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Adam Hagenbuch, and Erin Wilhemi all are good in their small roles. Mae Whitman, also in a small role, steals a few scenes and is fantastic. Paul Rudd is very charming and likable (as always). Emma Watson plays Sam, Charlie’s crush. She portrays the character to be very much the girl the audience falls for (relating with Charlie), but also gives her depth and dramatic weight. Ezra Miller is brilliant in the film, giving one of the year’s best performances playing Patrick. He is electric, pulling focus towards himself in every scene he is in (this, building off of last year’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, is a star-making turn). Logan Lerman is great as Charlie, as well (giving probably the best performance of his career to date). He brings just the right amount of shyness, awkwardness and innocence to really draw the audience in before delving deeper into his issues.

Summary & score: The Perks of Being a Wallflower draws the viewer in with its humor, wonderfully developed characters and compelling performances, only to emotionally engage them with weighty drama. 8/10

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