The Perks of Being A Wallflower is an adaptation of the 1999 teen novel of the same name, the sort of earnest tome that inspires kids to proudly brand themselves “wallflowers” in a way that has nothing to do with Jakob Dylan, and that forced hundreds of high schoolers to learn what “epistolary” meant. Many high schools now assign the book as required reading, which is likely partly a statement on its quality and partly a way of subtly reminding students of the existence of the school’s counseling department.
I myself was fortunate enough to not be forced to read the book, which tends to negatively color one’s memories of a work (I’m looking at you, “Great Expectations”), but instead stumbled across it in college – a little too late to really fall in love with that kind of novel, certainly, but not too late to develop a real fondness. My memories of the book are vague, but warm. But I was a little uncertain when I heard that it was being adapted to film.
First of all, adapting books is tough. Adapting young adult novels is tougher. Adapting novels written in the first person in a series of letters to an unknown friend is tougher still. Adapting novels written in the first person in a series of letters to an unknown friend concerning love, pain, death, suicide, mental illness, sexual trauma, and the perils of high school into a bright, accessible teen movie seems nigh-impossible.
But then word came out that the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky (the pronunciation of whose name I’m quite uncertain of), would be adapting the novel into a screenplay himself.
Good news. My heart is warm.
Then word came out that Chbosky would be directing the film himself.
Not good news. I feel a chill across my back.
I’ve seen movies by first-time directors. Some of them – a few of them – are great. But that’s usually because they’re by people who’ve spent a lifetime preparing for that moment. They’ve been making short films in their backyard, done their dues as a commercial director, or spent decades on movie sets as an actor or technician. Chbosky doesn’t have any of that experience. He’s the guy who wrote the film adaptation of “Rent.”
So… why is this movie so good?
I’m serious, guys. It’s good. Real good. Amazingly good.
It’s not just that the performances are strong – though they are, and we’re absolutely going to get to that in a moment. It’s that the film is so well paced, so well knit together. There’s none of the haphazard, I’ll-know-better-next-time clunkiness that’s the trademark of new directors. It’s visually strong in a way dozens of major Hollywood directors never achieve. It’s tense. It’s magnetic. It’s… moving. How the hell is a director this inexperienced so sure-handed?
I don’t have any idea. I’d love to know. Certainly some of the credit has to go to the cast, though by the same token, you have to give Chbosky credit for getting such good performances out of his actors.
I know everyone always says it, but most of a movie like this really is casting, and Logan Lerman, the lead, and Ezra Miller (whom I’m just realizing now is perhaps the saddest possible version of the “gay best friend” ever) are both exceptional here. Lerman is frail and honest and small all at once, and he plays broken with real, accessible feeling, keeping the audience from that sense of distance that so spotted Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master (I’ll review The Master when I’m good and ready. Which may be never).
The specter of his almost certain breakdown haunts the movie – Lerman is wound so tight that you know his newfound happiness can’t possibly last, and yet you root for it to anyway. His quiet is nicely counteracted by Miller’s ebullience, who sells the hidden melancholy with tiny breaks and almost imperceptible voice cracks. He’s ever bit the rising star We Need To Talk About Kevin hinted he would be, and the two are an unconventional, yet terrific pairing. If anyone wants to sell a studio a movie featuring Lerman and Miller as a pair of emotionally fragile rookie cops with something to hide, I can promise you that you’ve already got my nine dollars for an opening night ticket.
I would say that what you think about Emma Watson depends on what you already think of her, but I don’t think that’s true. Watson is forever Hermoine, and while she’s very good in this movie, she’s probably not the caliber of actress to ever really break away from that role. But there’s a reason why it’s so easy to buy her as the dream girl – she has a quality to her, a magnetism that jumps off the screen. It’s the reason why she’s one of the most searched Google terms of the past few years, and it’s easy to see why Lerman’s character is so instantly smitten.
The cast is rounded out by a collection of name actors seemingly far too famous to be in a movie this tiny: Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Nina Dobrev, Melanie Lynskey, Mae Whitman, Joan Cusack - and most notably, Paul Rudd, who eschews comedy and drops his trademark cheek, and yet somehow seems more comfortable and compelling than I’ve ever seen him before.
Young Neil is also in this movie. He's not too big to be in it. But I just wanted to mention it.
Often times, already knowing the source material can dull a movie’s edge, but the imbalance at the center of Wallflower’s plot – the mental instability Lerman’s character struggles with – only makes the movie more tense for those in the know. There is a bomb at the heart of this movie, and fans of the book are no more privy to its timer than newcomers, only to the stakes of its explosion.
Movies about books like this never get made, and if they do, they always get their guts ripped out and replaced with dick jokes and radio-friendly pop songs. Go see a movie that centers its characters around their love of Smiths’ b-sides and then tries to sell that film to teenagers. The world’s a better place for it.