The thing I love about “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” is that it takes the darkness of its teenagers seriously. Logan Lerman leads a great cast as Charlie, a freshman in high school who has just gotten out of the hospital after a nervous breakdown brought on by the suicide of his best friend. But he doesn’t want to talk or think about the past, so the film doesn’t dwell on it or dramatize it. Instead, we see mostly subtle ways that the past are affecting his present – for instance, how his parents and siblings can’t help but treat him with kid gloves, constantly afraid that things are getting bad again. Or the way he tries to appear normal, without being sure what normal is or looks like.
But don’t most freshman in high school feel that way? Lerman feels completely alone and anonymous in school, until he gets adopted by a group of older students, led by brother & sister Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. This is Watson’s first major role since finishing up the Harry Potter series (she had a very inconsequential part in last year’s “My Week With Marilyn”) and it’s a genius piece of casting. Lerman immediately develops a huge crush on her, but she’s a senior and he’s a freshman so she’s completely inaccessible to him, romantically. I imagine this captures how most of “Perk’s” male target audience — teens a few years younger than Watson — feel, to a tee. He is instantly likable because he has a crush on their crush.
Watson is mostly outshined by the lesser-known actors around her. Ezra Miller is much, much better here than he was in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” He plays an openly gay teenager in a relationship with a closeted gay football player, and he brings both pain and humor to that unenviable situation. And I’m a huge fan of Mae Whitman, who was great on “Arrested Development,” is consistently one of the best parts of “Parenthood,” and turns in a brave, funny, and self-effacing performance here as the girl who falls for Lerman and accidentally becomes the girlfriend from hell, mostly because he can’t stop thinking about Emma Watson.
Most teen dramas fall into two categories: they’re either so maudlin and melodramatic that no one out of their teens could possible take them seriously (like the “Twilight” series) or they’re pitched with a subtext of nostalgia, sort of nudging and winking at an older audience and whispering “weren’t we miserable in high school? Isn’t it funny how much we thought our little, insignificant problems mattered?” As I remember, this is what it feels like to be a teenager — you can either talk about what’s on your mind with your peers, who are no help at all because they’re just as immature and confused as you are, or you can talk to an adult, most of whom are patronizing and think your problems are just so cute. “The Perks of Being That Wallflower” is like finding that one adult – a teacher,a counsellor, maybe a pastor – who actually takes you seriously, without pretending to be a teenager themselves. What a relief to find a person like that. Or a film like this one.