It's no surprise that so many movies are about teenagers, since they make up the largest bloc of moviegoers.
But rarely do those movies have anything meaningful to say about teen life and it's that rarity that makes Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" a heartbreaking and endearing film, perhaps the best movie about teens since John Hughes formed "The Breakfast Club."
The story truly is Chbosky's he is the movie's writer and director, and he adapted the screenplay from his 1999 novel, which was inspired by his own teen years growing up in Pittsburgh (where the movie was filmed). And Chbosky (who adapted the screenplay for "Rent" and co-created the cult TV series "Jericho") captures with pinpoint accuracy the thousand little pains of adolescence.
It's 1991, and 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting his freshman year in high school. He's slow to make friends; in fact, his only confidante is his unseen pen pal, to whom he tells everything in a series of earnest letters (a nod to the epistolary nature of Chbosky's novel). At first, the only connection he makes is with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), who starts giving Charlie books (like The Great Gatsby) that he doesn't give the other students.
One day, in shop class, he notices a loud-mouthed older kid, Patrick (Ezra Miller), and strikes up a friendship. Patrick then introduces Charlie to his stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson), and their circle of social-outcast classmates. Charlie soon feels at home in what Sam calls "the Island of Misfit Toys," with kids who partake of alcohol and Ecstasy and who spend most weekend nights re-enacting "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at their local theater.
Charlie watches and notes, with earnest honesty, this new world. ("You see things, and you understand. You're a wallflower," Patrick tells him at one point.) But finding his place with Patrick and Sam's circle is not the end of Charlie's troubles. Charlie starts dating the punky Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), though he finds himself drawn more toward Sam. Meanwhile, his parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) seem to walk on eggshells around Charlie, cryptically referring to an incident that is referred to in flashbacks involving his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey).
The young cast here is impressive. Lerman (best known as teen demigod Percy Jackson in "The Lightning Thief") is quiet, in keeping with his role as the film's observer, but with a deep core of sadness and redemptive soul. Miller is passionate and funny, and a polar opposite of his chilling role in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." And Watson, in her first post-"Harry Potter" role, shows us there is life after Hermione Granger as she brings to Sam an air of heartache and resiliency.
Chbosky creates in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" a rich and authentic portrait of high-school bohemians, searching for freedom in the stifling environment of adolescent conformity. The phony comfort of the suburban Pittsburgh settings serves as a perfect launchpad for these characters' dreams of escape even if it's just the momentary release Sam feels, in the movie's signature image, standing in the bed of Patrick's speeding pickup truck with her arms held wide as the wind rushes across her face. It's a moment of stunning grace in a movie that's packed with them.
'The Perks of Being a Wallflower'
A quiet high-school freshman finds friendship with a group of outcast seniors in this touching teen drama.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 5.
Rating • PG-13 (on appeal) for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references and a fight all involving teens.
Running time • 103 minutes.