Let’s start with a social experiment: Take the next five people you encounter on the street and ask one question: “Was ninth grade a fairly awkward year for you?” If these folks had a freshman experience like mine, I’d bet their responses would consist of a rushed affirmation and fits of laughter after visualizing the dorks, geeks, dweebs or complete misfits they were so many years ago.
The reason this reviewer blatantly refuses to partake in the common U.Va polos-and-khakis dress code is because in 2008, that uniform stuck to his skin five days a week. Other things that exerted a magnetic hold on him included, but weren’t limited to: ever-present and always-rampant acne, his constant attraction to a different girl every day and the yearlong quest to make fast but fantastic friends.
Before Borders disappeared into the bankruptcy black hole, I spent countless hours after school with my nose in a different paperback every day. Following a classmate’s recommendation, I selected The Perks of Being a Wallflower and instantly identified with the narrator: the quiet yet extremely verbose Charlie. Although we were disconnected by time and space, and well, reality, we were both thrust into environments in which we didn’t feel completely comfortable. But soon enough, we learned to participate, and, in an ironic twist, find the perks of not being a wallflower.
A bite-size plot summary: After the death of his aunt Helen and suicide of his best friend, Charlie (Percy Jackson’s Logan Lerman) is crushingly introverted and feels no connection with his peers. When Patrick (Ezra Miller), Sam (Emma Watson post-Potter) and his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) take him under their wings, he begins to reach closure and learns life can make him feel infinite.
I’m no longer in high school, obviously. It’s now 2012. After a lengthy stay in Michigan I’ve been in Virginia for two years. Perks is still in limited release despite the distributor having released five god-awful Twilight films and now being flush with cash, and only two theaters in the Old Dominion have showings. I’m riding passenger in an ancient BMW convertible. My girlfriend and I are 10 minutes late, but luckily we don’t miss a second, and that in itself is a perk. The film shines.
Few authors get behind the reins of nearly every facet of a film adaptation, but Perks author Stephen Chbosky had a hand in producing and received top bill as director and head screenwriter. His influence is evident as most of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from its source material.
The dark tone of the novel is somewhat diluted on screen. Miller’s interpretation of Patrick adds frequent comic relief, and Watson, dipping in and out of an American accent, performs well in her first role far from the wizarding world. Lerman’s take on Charlie is as honest as his novelistic counterpart and is the clear standout in a talented cast.
Accompanied by a soundtrack filled with cuts from XTC and Sonic Youth, the 1990s period piece combines emotive tunes with teenage trials and tribulations. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll litter the surface of the adaptation, but the themes of love and acceptance are what resonate long after the credits roll.
A silver screen treatment tears most books apart by their binding, but Perks is an anomaly. Boosted by convincing performances, an excellent soundtrack and a screenplay that’s a love letter to its roots, it may truly replace The Catcher in the Rye as the quintessential coming-of-age tale.