The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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October 29, 2012

Benji Tunnell: 'Wallflower' captures feel of teen years

JOPLIN, Mo. — We’ve all been emotionally scarred by our high school years. It’s a rite of passage; those four years are full of awkwardness, angst and apathy, with most wandering directionless through the halls, seeking a purpose and meaning for their lives.

Most will agree that the teenage years suck, and that it takes a little time, distance and self-delusion before adults can begin to look back fondly on that period of their lives. But there is always something worth looking back upon.

This is rarely captured in films about the high school years. Most come off as patronizing, cloying or some combination of the two. That’s why a film like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is such a nice change from the typical Hollywood treatment of such a painful and formative time in our lives.

“Wallflower” is adapted and directed by Stephen Chbosky from his best-selling young adult novel of the same name. It focuses on Charlie (Logan Lerman) a painfully shy freshman about to start his first year of high school.

Charlie carries emotional damage in the form of a friend who killed himself and an aunt who died in a car accident. He is unable to connect with anyone at school until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), a gay classmate whose indifference toward the opinions of those around him allows him to live life relatively unencumbered.

Seniors Patrick and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson) befriend Charlie and allow him into their circle, which includes Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), goth girl Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) and closeted football player Brad (Johnny Simmons).  

Charlie also finds himself connected to Mr. Anderson (a very out of character but very effective Paul Rudd), a teacher who finds a kindred soul in Charlie. The teacher makes a connection with his student, encouraging him not only in school but with his nascent writing desires.

Of course, this being a movie about high-schoolers, the emotions and immaturity flair their ugly heads, causing a rift between Charlie and his newfound friends.

What makes “Wallflower” endearing is its treatment of the teen experience. At that age, before the soul crushing responsibilities of adulthood, there are friends you think will be with you forever, experiences that you find magical and moments that seem to be life changing.

It’s how “Wallflower” portrays this chapter of life that lifts it up above the typical pandering teenage fare that is seen on movie screens. From an innocuous car ride that turns into a life changing experience to a first kiss that alters a viewpoint and a quest to find the perfect song, it’s the little moments that make these times so memorable, and Chbosky has a way of reflecting this without being belittling or condescending.

Music also plays an integral part in the film, and without rehashing what my colleague Jeremiah Tucker covered last week, I will say that it does well to complement the mood and the scenes. Slightly reminiscent of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” with their quest to find an elusive band, David Bowie’s “Heroes” propels the group while commenting on the underlying theme of the film.

The movie does take a turn for the darker, but even this is handled in a realistic manner. It avoids the maudlin while dealing with some pretty heady material.

The movie leans heavily on its cast to carry this off, as well as the audience’s trust. It could have easily tipped over into after school special territory, but it stays on the side of emotional yet still credible, allowing for a more impactful result.

Chbosky seems to know his audience well, and his young actors work well with each other and the material. It is an honest portrayal in a genre that doesn’t always reflect such honesty.

Though the entire cast is solid, Lerman shows a damaged vulnerability that, though not forgiving the flaws of his character, allows for redemption and ultimately happiness, even in the fleeting temporariness of teenage life. Watson is also likable and strong as a girl who has had her own issues and has battled with self destructive tendencies, but has come out the other side more confident of who she wants to be.

And the standout of the film is Miller as the flamboyant Patrick. Even as self-assured as he seems, he has a vulnerability that seeps through. Miller takes hold of every scene he’s in, but manages to do so in a way that is natural rather than show offy.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a rarity in that it portrays a time of adolescence without varnish or sugar coating. Instead, it is a realistic look at a time that is both difficult yet rewarding, that in hindsight can be seen as frustrating yet bittersweet. It may be a film about teenage life, but its appeal is broad enough to encompass all of us who are a few years removed as well.

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