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.
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