'Wallflower' has universal elements, despite time and place

| Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, 9:12 p.m.

In the social hierarchy of high school, being a wallflower — the shy, detached, observant type — is pretty low on the totem pole, only slightly above hall monitor and hair net-clad lunch lady.

But there are some perks.

For Charlie, a 15-year-old freshman in Stephen Chbosky's “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” they include being adopted by a clique of exciting, worldly older misfits at school — including a beautiful girl who was once a wizard, in a past life.

OK, that bit of information isn't in the book. But the movie, which was shot in Pittsburgh last year, stars Emma Watson — best-known as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies — as Charlie's friend/crush Sam. This adds a whole new dimension to the movie for the generation who grew up with “Potter,” a populace that includes most of her co-stars.

“The two things I love most of all are ‘Harry Potter' and food,” says actress Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”), who plays Sam and Charlie's friend Mary Elizabeth. “I slowly released little tidbits about how excited I am to work with her. I didn't want to let it all out at once, so she didn't get a restraining order.”

Watson, 22, felt drawn to the “Perks” role as a chance to define herself as an actress apart from the Harry Potter franchise, which she acted in from the age of 9.

“I started reading (outside) scripts around the time of the fourth Harry Potter film, and didn't see anything I loved,” Watson says. “Then I read ‘Perks.' It's so beautifully written, so funny. Instantly, I knew the movie had to be made and I had to play Sam. When I met Stephen, we instantly clicked. It felt like meeting an old friend.”

Since the novel was first published in 1999, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has garnered a large, dedicated following, well beyond the typical fanbase of young-adult fiction. Chbosky, originally from Upper St. Clair, set the book in the Pittsburgh suburbs, though the city isn't named specifically. Chbosky also wrote the screenplay for the movie and directed it.

The film was shot primarily on streets and private homes in Upper St. Clair. Other locations included the Hollywood Theater in Dormont (where Chbosky first saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as a teenager), Bethel Church, a King's Family Restaurant, the West End Overlook and West Penn Hospital.

Watson was concerned about getting American teenage culture right, especially the accent.

“I was very nervous about the American accent,” Watson says. “The (other) kids in the movie have been to American high school. They know what prom looks like.”

Her easy rapport with Chbosky helped things considerably, she says. As they got to know each other, Chbosky wasn't above playing small tricks on her to trigger the performances he wanted.

“I really felt like he gets me,” Watson says. “He'll say, ‘Emma can't smile,' knowing I'll start laughing.”

In one scene, she was supposed to open an acceptance letter from Penn State. To get the reaction he wanted, he put something else in the envelope.

“Stephen wrote me a letter,” Watson says. “What he wrote was very meaningful to me.”

Some of the story's appeal rests on its universality — it could take place in just about any middle-class American suburb. There are plenty of references to Pittsburgh-specific locations, though, including an important scene that takes place in the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

“For Stephen, this was the come-to-Jesus shot — driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel,” says Sheryl Main, unit publicist for the film who is originally from Beaver Falls. “It's Charlie realizing he has wings. He's losing his inhibitions.”

For Watson, the scene was particularly exhilarating.

“Hands-down, one of the best moments of my life,” she says. “First time, I was so emotional, I cried. Seeing the shot of what it looks like — it's going to blow your mind.”

Though Charlie, the main character, is remarkably naive and inexperienced, the actor playing him already has one young-adult fiction movie adaptation under his belt. Nineteen-year-old Logan Lerman was the lead in “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” He found the character of Charlie very easy to relate to.

“I was very similar to Charlie growing up — it was an instant understanding,” Lerman says. “I guess with the awkwardness — I wasn't as naive as him.”

Though the '90s fashions were obvious, considerable effort was made to keep them from being too distracting.

“Part of it is that they wanted a classic look,” says costume designer David Robinson. “It's not ‘The Wedding Singer' by any means. They wanted the drama to come across, not shoulderpads jokes.”

Ezra Miller, who plays Sam's brother Patrick says, Watson's performance is really going to change the way people look at her.

“Emma's one of the most severely mind-blowing forces in my peer group,” he says. “Based on what's come before this, people have no idea what's coming (from her).

“I can't wait until an entire generation of Harry Potter fans gets their minds twisted into tiny pretzel-like knots by this performance.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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