If the title begs the question, “what exactly are the perks?”, then there is no shortage of answers in this endearing, passionate film, one that deftly juggles dark themes and new beginnings. At the helm of this adolescent story is Stephen Chbosky, the author of the book, who has clearly demarcated the line between film and fiction with precision and delicate altruism. What he heralds is nothing less than the most insightful recounting of high school imaginable.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an elite debut on many fronts. Most prominent is Charlie, played by a heartfelt Logan Lerman, who has every hair check and frail half smile down to an art. His narration, a series of letters addressed to his friend, is laced with just enough timidity and resolve to win us over. But even his resolve to outlive the last thousand or so days of high school isn’t enough – until two seniors swoop in to grace him with equally – and gleefully – atypical social skills. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is a senior relegated to taking freshman shop and cheering on the football team, in particular Brad Hayes, as he makes snark comments about originality and fascist shop teachers. It’s his stepsister, Sam, who shines in Charlie’s eyes from the moment they first meet under the Friday light nights. This is a fresh start for Emma Watson, her slightly sultry and studious Sam another fleshed out character who draws us even deeper into the angst and rebelliousness of teens. The trio slip from parties to study sessions for the SAT, occasionally lightening up with trips to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and other islands of misfit toys.
There’s much more to the heart of this tale than high school dances and drugs, though; Charlie is from the onset a damaged kid, one who knows that he has to look forward if he is to outgrow his past traumas. And, though they are plentiful, Chbosky never dwells on them to the point of depression. Occasional flashbacks of his now-deceased Aunt Helen and the injustice of her death recount fragments of Charlie’s deeply subverted pain, leaving him vulnerable and aching for acceptance. Empathy and romance abound, as family and friends overlap in scenes that are emotionally fine-tuned and nostalgic. Every song Charlie and crew jam out to only solidifies the feel of this early 90s setting (the next time you see a mixed tape, you’ll most likely burst out laughing after seeing Perks). The more he loves Sam – and finds ways to screw up his current relationship with the less-than-cordial Mary Elizabeth – the more Charlie finds himself facing his past. There is never a shadow of doubt as to the humanism of the story, though, even as intuition and inference come into play. The turmoil that follows each character, from sexual abuse to homophobia, is very real.
Dotted with just enough literary and cultural references, Perks glows – if at times a little too cleanly – with the pitfalls of suburban American families who may seem like they have it all, but never quite reach actual well-being. And that is perfectly okay, because it is what we as the viewer can relate to the most powerfully. As Charlie says, “Even if you didn’t know what I was talking about, or know someone who’s gone through it, you’ve made me not feel alone.” Soaring, brooding, and heartbreaking, Perks uplifts with truths that are tried and well worn in thousands of other films and books. It just does it with more vigor and brilliance than most.