The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Perks of Being a Wallflower (USA) Directed by Stephen Chbosky Written by Stephen Chbosky Starring Logan Lerman; Emma Watson; Ezra MIller; Dylan McDermott; Kate Walsh; Melanie Lynsky; Mae Whitman; Johnny Simmons; Paul Rudd; Joan Cusack; NIna Dobrev; NIcholas Baun;
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the latest edition to the pantheon of coming-of-age films, gets some points for earnestness, but never moves much beyond the kind of overly nostalgic self-consciousness that so often cripples like-minded entries. Written and directed by Steven Chbosky, who adapts his own popular novel of the same name, Perks staunchly refuses to define when it takes place, a fact that adds to an overall murkiness that seriously affects our sense of place, and is not coincidentally representative of a general lack of pace and specificity having to do with story.
We are evidently supposed to discern that we’re in suburban Pittsburgh, though there is little reference to where exactly, and even less of a feel for actually being there (several mentions of local places and things come off as beyond forced). On the other hand, the film is littered with musical and literary references galore, and while it drops hints about the general time frame, particularly through the music (eventually we can guess it’s early 90s), the lack of specifics make it much more difficult to contextualize then it should be.
Haziness or vagueness in regards to the essentials of where and when may be okay for mystery, neo-noir, sci-fi, experimental film-making, or for that matter, any kind of film that is deflecting key details in order to intentionally disorient us, but this obfuscation feels without artful purpose, and more like a way to avoid having to adhere to period details. While the lack of continuity with clothing and hairstyle may not be something that is at the forefront of every viewer’s thoughts while watching, it can most definitely be felt on at least a subconscious level. Whether this decision was due to budget constraints (as is often the case), or whatever the reasons might have been, it amounts to something akin to laziness.
Further, the lead character Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a 14 year old high school freshman, while the people he befriends are all 17-18 year old seniors (and many of their friends older graduates), and hardly a mention is made of this vast disparity, even as Charlie gets involved romantically with several of the girls (which is also potentially against the law). This lack of acknowledgment of the strangeness of his character becoming a part of this particular group’s inner circle may seem like a small detail, but one only has to remember back to what it was like to be that age to recall just how vast a difference this is and how unlikely this would have been to occur.
The plot is so heavy handed and suffused with teenage angst coming at you from every angle (issues include homosexuality, rape, molestation, promiscuity, bullying, mental illness, domestic abuse) that it overrides some of the nicer moments found within. The script has the subtlety of a jack hammer and lets down young actors like Emma Watson (as Sam) and the usually excellent Ezra Miller (as Patrick), who both give the weakest performances of their young careers. Newcomer Lerman makes the most of what is given to him, though by the end the cumulative misery overdose has taken effect, rendering us apathetic to the conclusion.
Chbosky has assembled a nice supporting cast, but potentially interesting characters (outside the group of friends) played by actors like Johnny Simmons, Paul Rudd, Kate Walsh, Joan Cusack, Dylan McDdermott, Melanie Lynsky, and Nina Dobrev are just not given enough to do. Mae Whitman is good in a few scenes, but Chbosky as director does none of his actors any favors. The first fifteen minutes of the film are particularly weak, with scenes consisting of awkward performances, stilted dialogue, and a kind of forced frivolity with characters laughing at things that are supposed to be funny to them, but are not to an audience.
Chbosky also has major issues with pacing. After the initial rocky start the film does begin to find a better groove, but is continually interrupted by Charlie’s drawn out flashbacks to memories of his Aunt Helen (Lynsky), and the continual introduction of yet another minor tragedy. One issue novel adaptations often suffer from is trying to cram all of the events in a book into an hour and a half to two hours of screen time. Perks is a prime example of trying to tackle too much plot in too small a window and there is not enough air left for the film to breathe.
A lot of big things are hinted at and discussed and noted and sighed over, but there is neither a resultant unfolding of events, nor is enough differentiation made between the average teenage issues of a bunch of white suburban rich kids, and more serious problems. Life changing things do happen to the main characters, but the emotions and small tragedies being portrayed are not allowed enough breadth to adequately play out or resolve on screen. Instead, the characters too often merely talk about what has already happened to them and stare meaningfully at one another.
There is a subtext here having to with outsiders (without knowing, one assumes Chbosky is gay) and their universal desire to assert their independence and individuality in the face of the repressive, conformist world they are forced to live in. Unfortunately, the intended subtext is also the text and it is hammered to death in the overwritten dialogue. Instead of having a single lead character’s journey standing for the whole, Chbosky feels it necessary to run the gamut in terms of problems that beset young people. In fact, one storyline includes a closeted gay relationship that winds up deflecting focus from the plight of his lead - so much so that one wonders if this, in fact, was the movie Chbosky actually wanted to make.
In the world of Perks it seems as if everyone we spend any time with is a victim, and this victimization is what is supposed to legitimize them and make them interesting to us. While we have at least a half dozen characters (or more) with serious issues, all of this victimization and the lamenting that comes with it is not, in and of itself, compelling. Minus the development needed for us to truly invest in these characters, the events wind up playing as so much empty melodrama.
Perks want to be epic, and takes great pains to come off as such. It bombards us with “troubled” characters, wanting us to empathize with them, and by the end we are supposed to feel that catharsis has taken place and all of the characters have moved in some meaningful way, but any film is charged with earning its denouement and our attendant emotions, and unfortunately, though it has some charms, this one fails to do either.