It’s rare that a novelist gets the chance to adapt his own best-selling book and direct it as well. Stephen Chbosky waited more than a decade to get that opportunity, but it’s paid off for him in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Aside from offering a prime showcase to Harry Potter’s Emma Watson (who’s completely credible as an American high school girl) and her male costars, the movie manages to capture the book’s deeply-felt emotions about growing up as a social misfit.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a quiet, fragile boy who’s about to embark on his freshman year of high school. His earnest demeanor and intelligence make him an immediate target for some of his classmates, but a sympathetic English teacher (nicely played by Paul Rudd) recognizes his qualities and encourages him. The turning point in Charlie’s young life comes when he is generously taken under the wing of some seniors who wear their individuality as a badge of honor, and see in him a kindred spirit. This happy band is led by a free spirit named Sam (Emma Watson) and her half-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who’s unabashedly gay, although his lover is still deep in the closet.
The film is episodic, and its energy level dips at times. An element of Charlie’s backstory is introduced fairly late in the proceedings and almost seems like an afterthought. But the most important emotional notes resonate profoundly. Overall, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Chbosky, all the more so because he was so close to the material, some of which was drawn from his own life. What’s more, he had to translate an epistolary novel into movie terms. Perhaps as a nod to the book, and the impact it has had on so many young people, he opens the film with Charlie writing the first of his diary-like letters to an unnamed friend.
The three lead performances are soulful and lift this film above the norm for coming-of-age stories. Lerman is appropriately dorky but avoids self-pity. Watson is luminous as the girl who leads him through a tumultuous year and never quite realizes that he’s fallen in love with her. And Miller is endearingly funny and real as a flamboyant character who, unlike so many of his classmates, knows just who he is.
Chbosky returned to his native Pittsburgh to shoot the film, which feels genuine throughout. Film-savvy viewers will note one of the city’s more notable residents, makeup artist and actor Tom Savini (famously associated with filmmaker George Romero) as Miller’s sardonic shop teacher.