Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writer: Stephen Chbosky (novel and screenplay)

I, I will be King
And you, you will be Queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day
                                          ~ David Bowie, Heroes

There are certain movies you watch at pivotal moments in your life that shape your outlook on the future and perhaps even change you as a human being. I imagine The Perks of Being a Wallflower will be that type of film for many adolescents (and maybe some adults) around the world. Over the years, Hollywood has bombarded us with countless movies about teenage lives. Some have worked, but plenty have dismally failed due to lazy writing and threadbare characters. Perks is very well-written, and the characters are almost painfully authentic. Chbosky achieves the sincerity that John Hughes mastered in the 1980s. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Chbosky adapted his own novel. He has had a relationship with these characters ever since he concocted them for the page. With full creative control and nurturing hands, he has successfully transitioned them to the screen.   

The centrepiece of Perks is Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is embarking on his freshman year of high school. Charlie is introverted and subdued, and only connects with his English teacher, Mr Anderson (Paul Rudd), on his first day. He soon finds company in two senior students—Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), who welcome Charlie into their clique. Charlie is content, having found people who appreciate his quirks and observational skills (hence the label wallflower). We see Charlie feed off this newfound attention throughout the film. He does things he wouldn't have done before falling in with Sam and Patrick. If you've read the novel, you'll know what those things are. I will not mention them in this review, for Perks is more than just a sum of its parts. The plot is secondary to the film's messages and emotional energy.

Some people will go into this film expecting a comedy with relentless gags. If you're one of those people, I urge you to change your expectations. Yes, there are laughs to be had, but the film doesn't strive to be a comedy. The humour is subtle and often comes at the most tense moments. This is so much better than a film that wants nothing more than for its audience to laugh, and forgets to devote attention to making us care about those telling the jokes. 

The film's soundtrack is firmly planted in my brain, and I think it will take a few weeks or a bout of amnesia to rid myself of it (not that I really want to). Many movies use music as an accessory, so that the songs become background noise. Every song that plays during Perks courses through your whole body. Whether it's the melancholy of Asleep by The Smiths, or the empowering gusto of David Bowie's Heroes, the songs really get under your skin, and each one was chosen with purpose. You know a song is used perfectly when it feels as though it was composed specifically for that scene. I never realised how great Come on Eileen was until I saw Sam, Patrick and Charlie dance to it. Oh, and mixtapes have not been so prolific in a film since High Fidelity in 2000. 

The three leads are impeccable, and I cannot imagine their roles being filled by any other actors. Logan Lerman gives a precocious performance whereby he tiptoes on the line between shy and confident. Emma Watson is lovely and she manages to communicate a lot through subtle glances and gestures, so much so that the DVD should be released with subtitles for body language. As for Ezra Miller, I cannot wait to see him in more things. His presence is electrifying, and he thrives on the spotlight. He is a natural performer who will go a long way. Paul Rudd's performance as Mr Anderson is an important one. Anyone with a natural curiosity for learning wishes they had a teacher like him. I would say teachers like Mr Anderson exist, but do not come along too often. What I like about his role is how the "inspiring English teacher" trope is not exploited. Such a character has been done to death, and while Mr Anderson does inspire Charlie, their relationship does not become the focus of the film. When they say goodbye to each other, it doesn't seem manufactured. It's how things happen in the real world. 

I must admit the film did not resonate with me as strongly as the novel did. Charlie's observations as a 'wallflower' made the novel what it was, and there's only so much room for introspection in a film that runs for 102 minutes. I also didn't like how the film dealt with a certain tragedy in Charlie's life. The use of flashbacks is a bit gimmicky and made for an uneasy contrast with the rest of the film. Alas, this is only a small hindrance and should not drastically affect your viewing experience.

I think Perks will be remembered for saying the things plenty of introverts internalise but cannot articulate. I share a lot of Charlie's social anxieties, and there were more than a few "That's me!" moments. But I should stress that this movie caters for extroverts, too. It's not so much about the pain of loneliness as it is about the joy of acceptance and belonging. In saying that, the film does not shy away from the unpleasant aspects of growing up. We have messy break-ups, bullying, ostracism and unrequited love. A film about adolescence would not be complete without the things that hurt us. Perks espouses that we should suck the raw emotion out of every moment in our youth, because that moment is demoted to a memory once it is finished. As is stated in the novel, “...there was a time when these weren’t memories. That someone actually took that photograph, and the people in the photograph had just eaten lunch or something.” To liberate ourselves from the monotony of life, we have to cherish the immediacy of the moments that make us smile. It's great to be alive, isn't it?

4.5/5 stars.

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