Teenagers have generally not been well served by the movies. Folks like Cameron Crowe, John Hughes and Judd Apatow aside, adolescent life is usually positioned around the goals of having sex, partying and getting into outlandish hijinks with little-to-no actual insight into how teenagers think or feel. In fact, it has been a long time since we've really had a movie that got it right, but delivering beyond expectations, "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" is about as authentic as it gets, bringing a fresh, funny and moving look at the ups and downs of friendship and family in high school.
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).
"Welcome to the island of misfit toys," Sam says to Charlie, introducing him to her wider circle of friends, and the description is accurate. Each in their minor or major ways have been navigating their teenage years while harboring various secrets that are continual aches and thorns in their sides. From Patrick's relationship with the closeted quarterback Brad (Johnny Simmons), to Sam's own involvement with an older man that leaves her true personality sidelined, it's with each other that they find solace, comfort and affection. But this is hardly a pity party. Within this group they are comfortable to be who they are, allowing them to survive the slings and arrows that come from the bumps in the road or even their own classmates, and embrace who they are.
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.
That Chbosky gets great turns out of all three leads certainly helps. Watson is solid as Sam who is still figuring out just what she deserves out of a boyfriend and out of life, while Miller will rightfully get a ton of attention for his irresistible and hilarious performance, which generates the film's biggest laughs. It's a flashy part, and Miller proves himself to be an actor everyone will want to continue to watch with a turn that always stays on the right side of becoming a caricature. But it's Lerman who really emerges as the strongest of the pack, with an arc that (without spoiling anything) goes to some emotionally very tough places, and he hits perfectly the notes of a kid who is dealing with love, deep pain, the exhilaration of finding yourself, and fear of losing everyone who understands you, all in a character that is very often contained and small (he's a wallflower, remember).
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-]