“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” transports audiences to a time when having friends to hang out with on a Saturday night was a godsend, when liking obscure British pop could suffice as the foundation of a friendship and when pretending to be grown up was indistinguishable from actually being grown up. That angst-ridden epoch was, of course, those four hellish years called high school that simply wouldn’t end quickly enough.
And when the film begins, our wallflower, the smart and introverted Charlie (Logan Lerman), is about to embark on what he expects will be his painful and lonely first year. He has no friends or acquaintances and lacks the necessary social skills to win over the strangers of his new institution. When we first meet him, he is every bit the archetype of the loner. But as the film progresses, we find out how and why he got there, and screenwriter, director and author of the original novel of the same name Stephen Chbosky constantly forces us to question our initial conception of Charlie.
Our hero meets the self-deprecating, affable senior Patrick (Ezra Miller), a social outcast but a seemingly self-confident one; he has his own group of friends that proudly embrace their alienation as being from “the island of misfit toys.” Through Patrick he meets the beautiful Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s stepsister, whose love of “The Smiths” and vinyl instantly puts her in dream-girl territory. Together they take him to his first party, introduce him to marijuana and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and welcome him into their circle of pretentious friends. For Charlie, it’s a dream come true; we watch as Charlie exalts these seniors, and we see how his own naiveté makes him oblivious to their foibles.
Alas, friendship is not the solution Charlie may have expected; it’s just a window into another complicated world where everyone has problems. The complexities of these friendships reveal themselves in moments of offhand or accidental candor; the movie feels real, largely due to the strong performances of its cast. These modern characters prove surprisingly mature about some issues despite being clueless about others. Though young, they share a deep sense of empathy and openness, and the actors effectively portray their vulnerabilities and desires while showing just how hard they work to hide them.
At times it’s unclear whether Chbosky intends what become cliché motifs. Should Sam’s hobby of standing in the back of their pickup truck while going through a tunnel, listening to loud indie pop, be dismissed as just another requirement of a high school movie, showing us the carefree nature of youth? Or is the film self-conscious enough for these scenes to instead represent the myth that the characters are creating for themselves about how much fun they are having, so that they can look back on these times with nostalgia?
“Perks” walks a fine line, but these hackneyed plot devices tell more about the stories the characters — who grew up on John Hughes movies — try to tell themselves than a clichéd story that Chbosky is trying to sell to the audience. This is not a “Revenge of the Nerds” film; it’s not a simple story about the archetypal wallflower learning to be okay with not being cool. It’s a film about very real and complicated characters who discover each other’s complexities and help each other deal with very difficult situations.