The Perks of Being a WallflowerMovies
(M, 103 minutes.)
Teen angst is a well-worn topic on screen, and prone to both critical dismissal (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series) and captivating wonder (John Hughes' The Breakfast Club). This adaptation by Stephen Chbosky of his own 1999 best-selling novel (published by MTV), about a trio of teens growing up in an upmarket Pittsburgh high school, thankfully falls comfortably in the latter camp.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is our adolescent narrator, arriving awkwardly for his first year. Charlie is getting over the death of his best pal, Michael, who committed suicide the year before. School is clearly going to be tough. To combat his growing pains, he takes to writing his hopes, fears and longings to an anonymous pen pal. He doesn't expect to fit in easily on day one.
Luckily for him, there's a sympathetic teacher (Paul Rudd) and soon enough, the dark, angular and fey figure of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sassy stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson), to help him on his way. The two seniors take the struggling first-year under his wing, and herein begins a wildish ride that will take in issues of drugs, sexual identity, and the difficulties of fitting in with one's peers.
Lerman anchors this engaging tale - which helped close this year's Toronto International Film Festival - as the troubled soul of Charlie, whose life-changing experiences ground matters in a familiar fashion. Yet he's upstaged at every turn by the talents of both Miller - so memorable for his sociopathic turn in Lynne Ramsay's exceptional (and criminally overlooked) art-house drama We Need to Talk About Kevin - and Watson (here, coming into her own post-Hogwarts).
Writer-director Chbosky exhibits a vivid, inherent rationality behind the tricky business of one's teenage years (and how to navigate them successfully), and is aided and abetted by Crazy, Stupid, Love lenser Andrew Dunn.
We're brought up close and personal when matters of the heart are in play, and suitably pulled back when they're not. Charlie is the wallflower of the title, unable to let go (initially, at least), and the direction of the piece accommodates this.
Equally, when Chbosky seems less confident with how to map out key scenes and sequences, he's ably supported by his fine cast. Miller and Watson are in their element here, helping to shore up this occasionally shaky effort from Chbosky.
Watson's past now seems a dim and distant memory. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is awash with literary and musical references, reading (almost) like a who's who of popular culture. There's an affectionate nod to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and British bands the Smiths and Dexys Midnight Runners, and a suitable, crowd-pleasing denouement featuring David Bowie's timeless classic Heroes. Its inclusion is curiously foreign to these culture-vulture kids - ''What is that song?'' they coo - which seems odd, even misplaced, given the other references. Perhaps there's a subtext in play, a point to be made about the cult-like phenomenon by which Bowie has retained a sense of the mysterious aura that has somehow kept him in the game for 40 years, the past 10 of which he's barely needed to utter a note.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not be quite the game-changer it could have been - a more experienced pair of hands would have been needed for such a task - but it certainly feels timely and entirely serviceable.
Its own sense of nostalgia some two decades on from its setting doesn't hurt, either.
Crucially, it's likely to offer a pivotal moment in time for its three leads. Lerman plays to Charlie's awkwardness nicely, without ever going overboard. Watson is a shoo-in as the smart but sensitive soul who will inevitably break hearts.
Miller, meanwhile, threatens to steal every scene he's in, infusing the camp character of Patrick with that essential joviality that belies its own set of issues. The New Jersey native is, in fact, fast turning heads in Hollywood, offering something radically different in an arena fit to bursting with blond, blue-eyed souls chasing fame. That he's already come out at the tender age of 19 suggests a career trajectory that should prove anything but predictable. This latest outing may not be a logical (or expected) follow-up to We Need to Talk about Kevin, but perhaps that's precisely the point.