*** (out of four)
In Stephen Chbosky's beloved novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” we are all Charlie. The book unfolds completely through the shy teenager's letters to an unidentified pen pal who unwittingly offers an ear and a shoulder to this freshman as he navigates high school. Even in its happy moments, the story aches. Its intimate view into the narrator's mind turns his confusions and insecurities into our own.
Inevitably, “Perks” the movie—written and directed by Chbosky—becomes more external. It's not as if the entire movie is shot from Charlie's point of view. Rather, he's played by now 20-year-old Logan Lerman, who looks far too old to be a high school freshman.
Part of what makes Chbosky's book so precise is the age gap between Charlie and his new best friends, step-siblings Sam (Emma Watson, better known as Hermione) and Patrick (Ezra Miller of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”). Sam and Patrick are seniors, so their kindness in adopting Charlie as a friend crosses the kind of lines many high school kids refuse to cross. In the movie, Charlie looks just as old as anyone else. Lerman, who is older than Miller, effectively portrays a freshman's anxious discomfort, but soon the freshman vs. senior distance only matters because eventually Charlie's friends will graduate and move on.
In adapting a book that so lives in its main character's head, Chbosky sometimes fails to show rather than tell, underplaying a significant late-movie revelation as well as Charlie's emotional state and his relationship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd). The kid spends hours by himself reading extra books and writing papers, yet the film minimizes the anguish that creeps into Charlie's mind when he feels alone in favor of drug-induced sequences that are familiar but amuse regardless.
The greatest strength of “Wallflower” may be its restraint. Unlike countless other coming-of-age stories, the film doesn't over-extend for laughs (which may be why it's not that funny). It also allows the drama—the universal experience of seeing the girl you love with the wrong guy and the sense of comfort that comes from feeling accepted by people less self-conscious than you—to seep in naturally.
Watson works despite a few slips into her English accent, but Miller's easily the standout, playing a flamboyant drama queen (which makes him a great Dr. Frank-N-Furter in a version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) who often brings truth to the cliché of laughing to keep from crying. In this early-'90s world of mixtapes and no cell phones, connection comes and goes in different ways than it does now. Yet the book and movie's key line, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” rings true in any age.
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