The Perks of Being a Wallflower: A Teen Angel’s Dreamy Angst

Emma Watson of the Harry Potter franchise comes to America to comfort a lonely high-school freshman in Stephen Chbosky's film of his young-adult best-seller

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Summit Entertainment

Oh to be 20 again, and in high school! That’s the implicit theme of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer-director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his 1999 best-seller, and of the many other rite-of-passage movies that cast actors in their early twenties to play kids four to six years younger. Perhaps the wondrous poise and budding maturity of on-screen teens can only be approximated by performers who could be in graduate school. Or maybe the readers of “young adult” books, and of the films made from them, want to gaze at beautiful, sanctified, fully developed versions of themselves rather than the gawky goslings their classmates perceive them to be. In the bathroom mirror I see only a pathetic nerd, but in my hidden heart I’m a glamorous star in the movies — or, at least, on the CW. Best of all, I’ve survived my teens. I’m 20.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Christian Slater, Winona Ryder and Shannen Doherty were all in their teens in 1988 when they shot Heathers, still the definitively corrosive portrait of life and death in high school (and soon to be a Bravo TV series). But the tone of Perks, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in real theaters Sept. 21, is much dewier; it wears its tremulous sensitivity like a girl’s first tattoo. The movie is a big Valentine box of creamy nostalgia: for the early ’90s, for the musical touchstones of the period (The Smiths, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and for the lovely delusion that outcasts are the hippest kids around.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Heathers by subscribing to TIME)

So it’s not surprising that Charlie, a high-school freshman and the story’s central character, should be played by Logan Lerman, the 20-year-old star of the Percy Jackson movies; or that Chbosky cast Mae Whitman, 24, Johnny Simmons, 26, and Emma Watson, 22, as some of the seniors who befriend or torment him. That’s right, folks. Emma “Hermione” Watson, princess of Hogwarts, has transferred to Pittsburgh to act, in the role of Sam, as referee between another pair of headstrong boys: freshman Charlie and her flamboyant fellow senior, Patrick (Ezra Miller, who in real life is a callow 19).

Charlie is a tender soul scraped raw by the sudden deaths of his best friend Michael — “Oh, he shot himself last May; kind of wish he’d left a note” — and, in a car crash, his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey, seen in flashbacks). First day at school, Charlie is instantly shunned by the entire student body. In the crowded lunchroom, he is the only one with a table to himself; even as a pariah, he’s a celebrity. In shop class, he meets Patrick, forced to keep repeating the course until he gets it right. It’s Patrick who admits Charlie into his cool coterie — he calls it “the Island of Misfit Toys” — that includes Sam and two other girls, Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) and Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) who see in Charlie what no one else in school but everyone in the audience can detect: a catch.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show)

At their Rocky Horror drag ball, where the gay Patrick of course plays the transsexual mad scientist, Charlie is drafted one midnight to dress up as Rocky, to Sam’s Janet. Mary Elizabeth is designated as Charlie’s girlfriend, but in a Truth or Dare game, when ordered to kiss the person he likes best, he smooches Sam. Sensation! Heartbreak! And, for a while, ostracism from the clique. Patrick is also deep in trauma time. He’s been keeping furtive sexual company with football star Brad (Simmons), and when the word gets out, Brad’s fellow jocks beat him up, for seeming hours, in a cafeteria that apparently has no adult supervision. Even here, Patrick has the saving grace of gay irony, announcing, “My life is now officially an After School Special.”

It’s all frightfully familiar — as if teens sitting around the campfire need to be told the same story every night — until the last 15 mins., when this Cocoa Puffs movie reveals an underlayer of arsenic. We’re sworn by the Misfit Toys code not to spill the secret, but we may disclose that this U-turn twist gives Perks a belated emotional punch we wouldn’t have suspected the movie could pack.

(READ: A fond farewell to the Harry Potter film saga)

Another modest but sustaining pleasure comes from watching these attractive actors impersonate themselves at a much earlier age. Watson makes a smooth matriculation from the England-made Harry Potter epics to this movie’s thrifty, six-week Pittsburgh shoot. Lerman — a cuddly toy of winsomeness, a one-boy cute festival — eventually comes within mewling distance of the bright, troubled kid he’s playing. And Miller, who was sepulchrally scary in the title role of last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, invests Patrick with queer charisma; he’s a Peter Pan or Auntie Mame of eccentric teens, and the niftiest perk in this often generic Perks.

READ: Mary Pols’ review of We Need to Talk About Kevin

14 comments
VideoGeek
VideoGeek

You mis-attribute quotes, make up scenes that didn't occur in the movie, and while I understand you did it to avoid spoilers, you belittled the causes of Charlie's general maladjustment. You, sir, have done a poor job.

Paige McCall
Paige McCall

They began shooting the movie 2 years ago. Back then, the actors were closer to their characters' ages. Not that it matters to anyone but you...

LiveHumbly
LiveHumbly

Wow what a half ass review......if I did my job as well as u do yours, I would be canned!  I have dismissed your reviews since Moulin Rouge.  What ever you were smoking to have ML in ur top 10 list, I need a pound of it....it has to be some good stuff to screw ur judgement that bad!  Your age is catching up to you.....both in your work ethic and your work.  The joke with my wife is lets see the movie Corliss hates...its got to be good! 

CaterinaLouise
CaterinaLouise

I hated the book - felt like the author was trying to shove every teen angst situation possible into a few hundred pages (under one school year). I likely won't see the movie. 

However, what's the obsession with the actor's ages? Emma Watson might be 22 but she could easily pass for 18 or younger - as could the rest of the cast. Have you really never met someone in their mid-twenties and been surprised they were old enough to drive, much less have finished college years prior?

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

The actors aren't that much older than their characters. Better than the cast of Glee, where the quarterback has wrinkles.

Mbb167
Mbb167

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is really good!!! I saw it at TIFF wasn't expecting such a great movie. Didn't realize how great of a writer Stephen Chbosky is either, Richard Corliss your review sucks, youre given free screenings bc we rely on you to give good advice and not a bunch of commentary on casting 22 year olds as 18 year olds Nobody cares that loves those actors. They cast based on what they bring to the role not when they were born. Their characters needed a maturity that only someone in their early twenties can bring and they bring it. This movie is great. The music is great and Stephen Chbosky is a great writer.

Mbb167
Mbb167

This is a shitty review for a good movie (Ive already seen it) Stephen chbosky is a genius writer and director, its too bad Richard Corliss isn't...all movie reviewers have to do is watch a movie and let us know if it's good or not. Is that so hard?

Mbb167
Mbb167

This is a shitty review for a great movie (saw it at TIFF already) Stephen chbosky is a genius it's too bad Richard Corliss is not

pg1980
pg1980

If you're going to review a film, for Pete's sake, actually watch the entire movie! You only make yourself look extremely foolish when you half-ass it and get several facts wrong. You tried to poke fun of the film, but your sad inaccurate review made you (and Time for hiring you) the punch line instead! You're the kid in English class who watches the film adaptation and turns in a book report based on it, then asks why did I get a "D"?! 

Take some notes:

1) Sam uses the Island of Misfit Toys line to Charlie.

2) Charlie's dare was to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, NOT whom he likes best.

3) Your "of course gay Patrick plays" (the transvestite) is ridiculous. Half the cast-Charlie, Brad, etc are ALL shown in that same costume. Just because it was Charlie's dream/fantasy/etc doesn't make it less relevant that it's depicted that way.

Troya Toy
Troya Toy

Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, and Ezra Miller = three hot Jews in one movie. It is the male version of Black Swan - remember that one, Richard?

Leann B.
Leann B.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is a movie that encourages kids to be weird, because someone, somewhere out there is just as weird as they are and willing to accept it. I know it's your job to review these movies and books objectively, but it hurts to hear you dismiss Perks, a book I loved dearly and completely took to heart, as an excuse for losers and freaks " to gaze at beautiful, sanctified, fully developed versions of themselves rather than the gawky goslings their classmates perceive them to be." 

Lay on the cheese, the dewiness, the superficiality, the feel-good theme, or whatever else you accused this movie of having. I still can't wait to see it.