I have long been fascinated by the American high school life I’ve seen depicted in a great many movies. As a setting for a spot of teen angst I just never tire of watching the formulaic Technicolor melting pot of jocks, geeks, cheerleaders, basketball games, yellow buses and cool teachers, even as I get older and the distance from my own school daze increases. Growing up in England and having attended a fairly ordinary school, it has always seemed to me that there is something incredibly exotic about the American equivalent, or at least the Hollywood version of it. Gone are the greys and blacks and austere ties of our dour British school uniforms, replaced with a dazzlingly casual array of Levi’s 501s, trainers (they even call them ‘sneakers’! Imagine!) and t-shirts. Where I was fed daily dollops of toxic waste for lunch, Tinseltown gave its high schoolers tasty, juicy cheeseburgers to feast upon, and the sullen, pale and overweight kids I mixed with on a daily basis looked nothing like the confident youngsters strutting around the locker-filled corridors of Texas, New Jersey or California. Just look at their smiles! They have full sets of white teeth!
The list of films I have enjoyed over the years set in high schools is long. There’s the John Hughes holy trinity of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty In Pink for starters*. Then there’s Amy Heckerling’s smart double whammy of Clueless and Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Not to mention Dazed And Confused, Back To The Future, Grosse Pointe Blank, Heathers, The Virgin Suicides, Rushmore, Teen Wolf, Election, Brick, American Pie … there is something about the high school that draws me in time after time. Yet the funny thing about Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is that there is a recent British equivalent – also dealing with angst-ridden youths in their formative years who suffer from growing pains – which I think is far superior. But more on that later.
Perks is Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel of the same name from 1999, which in turn is loosely-based on the author’s childhood in Pittsburgh. John Hughes actually bought the film rights to the novel many years ago, and had intended for it to be his directorial comeback, but sadly a screenplay was never completed. While that’s a shame, it’s rare that an author gets a chance to direct a film of a novel they themselves have written – David Mamet, Clive Barker, Michael Crichton, Ethan Hawke and John Sayles spring to mind – so it’s nice that Chbosky, a first-time filmmaker, was able to park himself in the chair.
Set in the early 1990s, the main protagonist is Charlie Kelmeckis (Logan Lerman), a shy introverted teenager who we first meet writing letters to a ‘friend’. However at the beginning of the film a friend is what Charlie lacks the most, and he begins his freshmanyear at high school alone following the suicide of best pal Michael the year before. (One of the aspects of US high school life that has fascinated me over the years is the lingo. ‘Freshman’, ‘sophomore’, ‘senior’ … these words made a mockery of our bland over-the-pond equivalents ‘first year’, ‘second year’, ‘third year’ etc.) His older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) attends the same school, but she is in a relationship with the occasionally-violent Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun), and subsequently has little time for her younger brother. Charlie bonds with his English teacher – it’s always the English teacher – Mr Anderson (Paul Rudd, rocking the corduroy), who happily introduces his student to a number of classic books while offering encouraging bonhomie.
Soon Charlie meets extrovert misfit Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior who is being forced to repeat a year after too much time spent as the class clown, and in turn Patrick’s half-sister Sam (Emma Watson, in her first role after the Harry Potter series), also a senior. (I actually dislike the idea of labelling anyone as a ‘misfit’ – especially teenagers – simply because they might be an introvert or an extrovert, as there’s nothing necessarily ‘wrong’ with either personality type. ‘Misfit’ (and ‘outsider’ for that matter) can be worn as badges of honour, and frequently are, but have negative connotations. I’ve used the word in this review for ease of describing a certain character type that regularly appears in this kind of movie.) They take Charlie under their wing, introducing him to their small group of friends which includes goth / punk Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) and casual stoner Bob (Adam Hagenbuch). Charlie comes out of his shell a little thanks to the new group of friends, trying pot and acid for the first time while attending parties, and he discovers the thrills of listening to cool music while riding around Pittsburgh in Patrick’s car. However problems begin to arise as he becomes attracted to Sam and is forced to deal with long-standing issues he has repressed.
Despite its flaws, this is at times a smartly-scripted drama and an enjoyable addition to the canon of rite-of-passage high school movies, though it incorporates more than its fair share of genre clichés: the kind teacher, the camp and amusing best friend, the reliance on extreme extroversion or introversion as though nothing else on the scale in between is of interest, the perfectly fine but entirely predictable 80s/90s soundtrack of The Cocteau Twins, The Smiths and New Order et al, the unsympathetic parents, the homecoming dance, the parties, the games of truth or dare etc. etc. When it comes to the high school, I actually dig the familiarity and comfort offered by these touchstones, and they don’t tend to bother me during the film as much as clichés normally do, but the derivative nature of Perks must be highlighted. (That said, although it doesn’t really break any new ground, unusually for the genre a gay relationship does feature, and while the subject of teenage homosexuality is very much a lesser theme here it is good to see it dealt with in a calm, measured way.)
One of the most pleasing aspects of this film’s arrival in 2012 is that it signalled the end of a period during which decent teenage dramas were in danger of dying out completely. School-related movies of the last ten years have largely been kiddie-pleasing Hannah Montana and Zac Efron vehicles, or packed with cheerleader dance routine nonsense and much excited talk about kissing. (I have a 14-year-old niece, and I’m pleased she has a Charlie to watch now, should she feel the need to.)
There’s something heartwarmingly nice about this particular high school story, and that’s down to the fact Charlie is a character without any oddball tendencies whatsoever: he’s simply a good kid, shy and quiet, lost in a world where great importance is placed upon the ability to be noisy and to be noticed. He’s the kind of character you really do root for, and one I completely identify with. I expect many more will do too, particularly those of the same or a similar age.
Lerman, aged 19 during filming, is good as the low-key boy dealing with the upheaval of a new school, trying to establish his own identity while fumbling through his teenage romances for the first time. We’ve seen a million and one variations on this character type, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with Lerman’s performance and he’s an engaging and believable lead. He is well-supported by Miller, who doesn’t exactly build on his excellent work in We Need To Talk About Kevin but turns in an energetic class clown-style performance, even if it is just a well-worn variation of what you could easily call ‘The Duckie Role’. Emma Watson and Mae Whitman are fine but the idea that either they, Lerman or Miller resemble a bunch of outsiders as opposed to a group of young, good-looking actors is an ask too far by Chbosky. The reality is that the ‘misfit’ or ‘outsider’ groups of most schools are more likely to have poor skin or are less likely to be conventionally handsome, shall we say. They would surely be far less confident and outgoing as a group, and indeed if real life was truly to be reflected there’s every chance some members would have an altogether darker aura entirely than anyone in this harmless bunch. The core group of friends in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower look like the kind of cool gang most kids would desperately want to be a part of at the age of 15 or 16, with faces that you’re far more likely to see on bedroom wall posters rather than skulking around behind the bike sheds.
Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, which came out two years earlier in 2010, covered very similar ground (even though it is set in Wales): it too follows the school days of a shy wallflower who struggles to negotiate young adulthood / a first relationship / a complicated home life. Ayoade’s picture is just as warm and just as woozy with nostalgia as Chbosky’s, but it’s sharper, smarter, funnier and far more inventive with its much-seen subject matter of teenage growing pains.
The main issue with The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is that all the clichés mean that the movie falls short of being a vital watch. It isn’t a film that has anything new to say about school days or adolescence, and it seems to throw weighty issues like domestic abuse, suicide, drug-taking and sexual identity around casually without actually exploring any of them to any satisfying extent, a fact which is highlighted by the frivolous decision to include a mere two minutes of Joan Cusack’s cameo as a shrink. It may lack the kinetic energy of a one-off like Dazed And Confused or the fresh spin of Brick, but despite all of this I still enjoyed its low-key celebration of friendship and quietness, and there are decent performances to admire. I don’t think Chbosky set out to pull up any trees, yet even as an avowed long-term fan of such high school dramas I feel a little frustrated that this movie didn’t go further. But it is sincere, and not without heart.
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
Running Time: 103 minutes