As a freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman) has it tougher than most. Aside from the usual unspoken divisions between the various cliques that roam the halls, Charlie has to do it all without his best friend, who committed suicide without leaving a note. This has contributed to some bona fide and serious mental problems that he is still working through, but he enters his new school with a slight bit of optimism. His English teacher (Paul Rudd) is encouraging his love of writing and books, and Charlie comes into the orbit of two seniors who take him under their wing, the lovely Sam (Emma Watson) and eccentric, bighearted and gay Patrick (Ezra Miller).
Based on the book by Stephen Chbosky, who also directs, it could be the benefits of having the author do double duty that allows 'Perks' to be as good as it is. What Chbosky understands is that a high school year in the life of a teenager isn't a few big dramas but instead is made up of lots of small episodes of joy and sorrow, especially as these kids learn about the heartbreak and compromises that come with growing older and learning who you are. 'Perks' presents teenagers as actual people, in all their complicated, messy and endearing ways, and it's this quality that pushes the film far beyond your standard entry in the genre.
But again, it's Chbosky knowing this material inside and out that gives 'Perks' its shape and feel. Set in the early 1990s, anyone who grew up during that time will enjoy the little touches, with this writer getting a big laugh out of Charlie's attempt to make a mixtape foiled by the cassette running out before the song ends (also, mixtapes as codes of communication are another element that is right on point). The Pittsburgh locations also help, with the various hangouts and homes that serve as the backdrop feeling lived in, not afraid to reflect the affluent background of these kids, but never diminishing their various struggles, which are true of anyone who has felt not quite comfortable in their own skin. And of course there's the music, with a carefully curated soundtrack by Alexandra Patsavas, that hits the necessary emotional cues while never overselling them.
If we're overly focused on the feeling of 'Perks,' that's because it's the biggest takeway from what is also an undeniably entertaining and charming picture. Nuance might be another appropriate word, because that's the quality as a director that Chbosky brings that allows this material and the film to take what are many standard elements of the coming-of-age story, and find a different approach. The story also successfully plumbs some very dark thematic developments, and navigates its way through humor and drama with ease. Touching and brimming with the energy, enthusiasm and tides of teenage love and life, 'Perks' could very well be the next classic of the genre. [A-]