It’s been thirteen years since Stephen Chbosky’s nouveau take on Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was released by MTV Books (back when MTV was semi-not a piece of shit). I bring up its original publisher only because it is telling of the fact that this novel was destined to be a film, what with its barrage of pop culture references and the often stark portrayal of how awkward and painstaking adolescence can be. It also helps that the film’s production company, Mr. Mudd Productions, enlisted Chbosky to both write the screenplay and direct the movie–hence the fairly seamless transition of The Perks of Being a Wallflower from page to frame.
Opening vaguely in the same manner as the book, our happily anonymous protagonist, Charlie (Logan Lerman, who possesses something of a Jake Gyllenhaal inflection), writes a letter to someone referred simply to as “a friend,” who he heard about from another girl and who he respects because he “didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party.” The introduction, in fact, bears a similar voice to a Bret Easton Ellis character. Though the book is dated as beginning on April 25, 1991 and concluding on August 23, 1992, the film is given a nondescript time period that serves it well.
As Charlie embarks upon his freshman year of high school with no friends to speak of, his only source of comfort is his English teacher, Bill Anderson (Paul Rudd), who immediately takes a shine to Charlie’s obvious intelligence. The bond they share in the movie isn’t quite as touched upon as it is in the novel, however, and, at times, the exchanges between them feel a bit wooden.
Not content with merely his teacher as a confidant, Charlie notices a senior in his freshman woodshop class named Patrick (the wonderfully flamboyant Ezra Miller). As one of the few people at his high school unafraid to stand out from the crowd, Patrick holds an allure for Charlie that he isn’t able to capitalize on until he sees him sitting alone at a football game. Desperate for any sort of companionship, Charlie dares to start talking to Patrick, who automatically respects him for not calling him Nothing (a nickname his woodshop teacher bestowed on him after Patrick insists, “You can call me Patrick or you can call me nothing.”).
When Patrick’s stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson, who seems slated to be the most successful Harry Potter cast member post-Harry Potter), joins him at the game, Charlie seems to fall instantly in love. As they allow Charlie into their fold, he confesses to Sam (albeit while unknowingly high on a pot brownie) that his best friend Michael killed himself. Realizing that she and Patrick are his only friends, she makes it a point to incorporate him into their entire group, including angry Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman a.k.a. Ann “Her?” Veal of Arrested Development) and blonde goth/wealthy shoplifter of jeans Alice (Erin Wilhelmi). And, finally for the first time in his life, Charlie doesn’t feel wrong or alone or utterly alienated.
Of course, as is usually the way, someone Charlie is completely uninterested in romantically–Mary Elizabeth–asks him to go out (specifically to the Sadie Hawkins dance). Although it is clear throughout the entire dance that Charlie is more interested in talking to Sam, whose college boyfriend, Craig (Reece Thompson), refused to attend, Mary Elizabeth interprets their date to mean they’re now boyfriend and girlfriend. Agonized over the thought of hurting her feelings, Charlie endures going out with her until a Freudian slip during a game of Truth or Dare in which Patrick dares Charlie to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. Without thinking, he kisses Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth, resulting in a chasm in his relationships with everyone else in the group.
Without his friends, Charlie becomes more prone to bouts of madness, blacking out and flashing back to memories of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey)–memories that are, shall we say, extremely unwanted. It isn’t until he defends Patrick from his secret football player boyfriend, Brad (Johnny Simmons, who I always associate with Jennifer’s Body), and his pack of homophobe friends that Charlie is re-embraced among his crowd. Even so, he finds it harder to push out the dark thoughts of a past that won’t stop plaguing him. When paired with constantly listening to “Asleep” by The Smiths, a recipe for a breakdown becomes inevitable.
Chbosky’s years as a screenwriting major at USC actually prove to be useful (an investment that seems so rarely to pay off for most) as he manages to structure a stream of consciousness epistolary format into three acts that consistently engage and rivet, reminding us of those formative years when we just wanted it all to be over and, for some of us, how the Cocteau Twins, New Order, Sonic Youth and XTC (all present on the film’s soundtrack) were the only antidote to the present.