Odious comparisons to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye emerged when Stephen Chbosky’s young-adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999. Erase the thought. Chbosky’s semiautobiographical treatment of his high school days was good, just not that good.
The film version, written and directed by Chbosky himself in a rare but welcome instance of Hollywood actually thinking an author might know something about his own book, is a modest but distinct pleasure. Chbosky is clearsighted about the harsh realities of sexual identity, drug use and mental illness, but alert to the scars left by emotional wounds.
Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma) excels as Charlie, the smart but socially inept freshman. The novel was done with letters, but Lerman is quite adept at catching the right tone of voice for a character who’s still not over a friend’s suicide, and a traumatic experience with an aunt (Melanie Lynskey).
It’s an unwritten rule that every wallflower needs advisers. Charlie’s older sister (a lovely turn from Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries) lends a sympathetic ear. And Paul Rudd brings warmth and nuance to the English teacher who befriends Charlie, within limits.
But Charlie needs help on the inside of this Pittsburgh high school circa 1991. Enter Samantha, a pretty, poised senior possessed of natural cool. She’s played by Emma Watson in her first major foray out of Hogwarts. Naturally Charlie aims his misplaced affection straight at her. Watson, sporting a spot-on Yank accent, makes a dream girl to die for.
But Perks is stolen, head to tail, by Ezra Miller (sensational as Tilda Swinton’s psycho son in We Need to Talk About Kevin). Miller is a force of healing nature as Patrick, Sam’s gay stepbrother. For Charlie, Patrick reps a world where feelings get expressed, where problems get talked out. Miller brings stinging humor and surprising tenderness to Patrick, two qualities Charlie needs badly.
Perks deserves points for going beyond the typical coming-of-age drivel aimed at teens. Chbosky’s compassion for his characters is absent any hint of condescension. And that’s reflected in performances that leave the feeling you’ve seen something good and true.