High school can be hell, but Stephen Chbosky’s engaging new film argues that anyone can get by with a little help from their friends. Even Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy, studious 10th-grader who doesn’t have much of a social circle and endures random taunting from classmates. Charlie has clearly experienced some sort of trauma — there’s a watchful wariness in his eyes, and he makes ominous references to the past. He has a solid support system: sympathetic parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh); an affectionate older sister (Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries), though she’s too involved with her boyfriend to pay him much attention; and even a football-star brother at college whose legacy might help ease the way for Charlie at school. Instead, Charlie is haunted by bad dreams and memories, and carving out a space for himself beyond teacher’s pet seems impossible.
Then two seniors befriend him, and everything changes. Charlie blossoms in the company of fearless, flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), who are college-bound, whip-smart, cool enough to not care about high school hierarchies, though not so cool that they reject such youthful inevitabilities as dances and football games and driving around with the windows down. They glory in the music that Charlie loves, dress up and act out The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the weekend with their avant-garde friends and party like they’re already in college. To say Charlie is thrilled to be in their company would be an understatement. They’re not just friends; they’re a shield against his demons.
Like any boy would, he inevitably he falls hard for Sam, who’s smart, gorgeous and knows a great tune when she hears it. But she’s also got Morrissey posters all over her walls, an indication that maybe she’s not always as carefree as she seems. In one of her first post-Harry Potter roles — she had a small part in last year’s My Week with Marilyn — Watson offers up promise, making the case that she has a future in this business beyond wielding magic wands and fighting evil wizards. But all three of the leads are terrific, and their chemistry goes a long way toward underscoring Chbosky’s themes on the importance of friendship.
Chbosky, who adapted the screenplay from his own popular young adult novel, is a compassionate filmmaker; he loves these kids, and he knows when to soften important moments and when to make them pulse with energy and emotion. He makes good use of the ’90s time frame, too: These kids don’t have cellphones or computers, which adds an urgency to their time together (as does the fact the older kids will be heading off to college at the end of the year). The ’90s also allow Chbosky to drag out that beloved artifact, the mix tape, which gives Wallflower a neat little jolt of nostalgia for adults in the audience.
There are some shaky transitions from page to screen: The suicide of Charlie’s best friend, which takes place before the film opens, seems glossed over too quickly, and the purpose behind the letters Charlie is writing to an unnamed friend remains a bit vague. But though it reflects the pain and uncertainty of adolescence, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a resoundingly universal reminder that when it’s good, life can feel just great.
Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Nina Dobrev, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh.
Writer/director: Stephen Chbosky. Based on his novel.
Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 103 minutes. Mature thematic material, alcohol and drug use, sexual content including references, fighting. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Paradise; in Palm Beach: Palace.