Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 20, 2012 9:50 pm 
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Smells like teen angst

This new classic coming of age tale told in the form of an epistolary novel about the woes and wonders experienced by a sensitive youth of fifteen in his freshman year at a Pittsburgh high school in the 1990's has been made into a fine film directed by the book's author. Logan Lerman gives an extraordinary, scarily complex performance as the narrator-protagonist, Charlie, with a superb supporting cast headed by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller and including Joan Cusack and Paul Rudd. The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens in theaters September 21, 2012. In addition to the book (published in 1999), Stephen Chbosky was the writer and executive producer for all episodes of the cult TV series "Jericho." This is his sophomore effort as a director for the big screen.

Emma Watson steps beyond her Harry Potter fame to play Sam, the complex half-sister of Patrick (Ezra Miller), the slightly manic gay senior who magnanimously rescues green freshman Charlie from isolation and loneliness at high school, and the girl Charlie winds up longing for. For those who know Miller only as the horrific young killer of We Need to Talk About Kevin (and didn't see him in other films such as City Island) will find out he can play nice guys too, though there's usually an edge. Watson is subtle and understated; the striking, mercurial Miller seems to be having a fabulous time in his campy but appealing role.

Charlie has a repressed traumatic early memory (revealed at the film's end) that makes him feel crazy. He sees things, though when he connects successfully with people that goes away; hence the lifeline represented by Sam and Patrick and the circle they make him a part of. Equally important support comes from Charlie's English teacher Bill (Paul Rudd), who recognizes his brilliance immediately and gives him classics to read outside class and write about. Meanwhile Charlie is penning a series of letters, excerpted in voiceover here and the substance of the source novel, in which he describes his life to an imaginary friend. Charlie desires Sam but accepts as his girlfriend instead Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), who forces herself on him. When he kisses Sam in front of the group and reveals that he prefers her, crushing Mary Elizabeth, Patrick tells him not to come around any more, and this ostracism leads to a return to depression and craziness -- till Charlie blacks out in the school cafeteria and protects Patrick from a gay bashing by friends of the football star Brad J(ohnny Simmons), Patrick's secret lover. Charlie menaces all the bully boys and scares them off; Patrick welcomes him back into the fold and he becomes a bit of a superhero at school.

The novel references a great many books, movies, and TV shows, and Charlie wins over his new school friends with his great musical taste, staring with The Smiths being his favorite group. The kindly Bill gives him Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, and Salinger to read, among others. These include, in the novel, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and Chbosky's book too was often banned for containing strong references to homosexuality, drugs (Charlie smokes pot and drops acid), sex (he eventually has it), and suicide (his best friend has recently killed himself when the novel begins). Rocky Horror Show costume singalong nights are regular rituals for Patrick and his posse and Charlie eventually gets pressed to don a shiny gold bikini and is a success.

It's no mystery how Perks of Being a Wallflower the novel could have become a huge hit with young people, perhaps the Catcher in the Rye of the 2000's. Charlie is an adorable everyboy to identify with. He experiences every sort of teen problem, shyness, insecurity, sexual confusion, a disturbing fantasy life arising from abuse. He lives through and overcomes them all to morph from nerdy outcast to semi-feared cool guy. It's a transformation that may be a bit too satisfying but avoids being too easy, perfect, or permanent. Lerman proves equal to the demands of the role of Charlie. An impressive young actor, he's both a mirror and a window, his mobile face always suggesting a lot is going on in Charlie's volatile young heart and mind. I might prefer the dry wit of Richard Ayoade's Submarine. It's British, and its young protagonist is seen more ironically. On the other hand Perks quite successfully leads us through emotions that seem both painful and true, including along the way references to a ton of things young Americans relate to or want to learn about. The press screening I watched was packed with young people, big fans of the book who seemed not at all displeased with how its author had transferred it to the screen.

Viewed at Variety Screening Room, San Francisco Aug. 20, 2012. The Perks of Being a Wallflower debuts at Toronto and subsequently opens in the US September 21 and in the UK October 3, 2012.

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