By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own 1991 young-adult novel of the same name, follows a repressed, deeply diffident young man through his freshman year of high school.
It’s the best movie set in high school since “Superbad,” though tonally it’s closer to the ’90s television drama “My So-Called Life.” I’m not prepared to say it’s my favorite movie of 2012, but I can say it’s the one best engineered to breezily leap over any critical faculties I may possess.
It also does a better job exploring the connection between music and teenagers than any movie in recent memory.
Teen movies and pop songs are alike in that both are outlets for maximum emotion in an environment where the stakes are relatively low. Unless you’re watching a horror movie or “Romeo and Juliet” Ñ the latter of which is how every teen movie would end if the characters followed their absurdly volatile emotions to their logical ends Ñ you’re assured most will make it out of adolescence alive, and the dampeners of adulthood will quiet them into a more balanced state.
Similarly, pop music is about distilling some emotion to its maximum potency for three minutes, which is probably why it was originally made for teenagers.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” takes place over a year, moving unhurriedly through the kind of ordinary events that always hold the potential to be monumental when you’re young: driving around, basement parties, hanging out after school. Throughout the movie, the music acts as an intensifier, not only for manipulating the audience but for the characters themselves.
Set in the early ’90s before the arrival of the Internet, the characters trade cassette tapes without any of the analog preciousness associated with the outdated technology. Back then mixtapes were simply the easiest way to turn each other on to new music.
(Like me, this may make you nostalgic for the days when every song wasn’t at your fingertips and have you wondering whether the economic law that an endless supply inevitably devalues a commodity also applies to the arts.)
Charlie, the main character, has his life changed early in the film when David Bowie’s “Heroes” comes on the radio as he and his new friends ride through a tunnel. The girl Charlie has a crush on, Sam (played by the “Harry Potter” series’ Emma Watson), immediately turns up Bowie’s 1977 anthem Ñ though none of them have heard the song before or know who sings it.
By the time they come out the other end, with the lights of Pittsburgh stretched before them, they’re all changed Ñ they’re bonded to each other with an intensity unique to their age. They spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out what the song was, a problem that seems quaint in the age of Shazam, as if they could only hear it again they might get that moment back.
In my favorite scene, Charlie screws up the courage to walk onto the dance floor after “Come on Eileen” begins, and he notices Sam and her stepbrother, Patrick (played by the charismatic Ezra Miller, who stole every scene he was in), dancing a goofy, coordinated routine. When Sam squeals that she can’t believe the DJ is “playing good music,” I felt nervous that Charlie (played by Logan Lerman with an open-faced innocence) wouldn’t be accepted. But he is, of course.
But Chobsky doesn’t shy away from the tragedies in his young characters’ lives either, and near the end he veers away from sweet, understated melancholy into territory dangerously close to melodrama. By then he’d earned enough of my goodwill that I didn’t care.
It turns out that Charlie’s problems stem from a childhood trauma that makes him especially attuned to the suffering of others, which is a common and occasionally fatal affliction for characters in the stories of J.D. Salinger, another author who mined that teenage feeling.
Mostly, high-school movies and pop songs are there to allow you to momentarily access that period of your life when being deeply sad, manic or obsessed with someone wasn’t a cause for concern, but a normal part of growing up. That kind of behavior as an adult quickly loses its romance and normally ends with permanent consequences and prescription medication.
But in a theater or in a car with the radio turned up, it’s fun to recall what it was like when everything rested so close to the surface and you didn’t have to worry too much if it sometimes boiled over.