Review: 'Perks' has some charm and innocence
PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens; 3 1⁄2 (out of 4)
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” based on the beloved young-adult epistolary novel by Pittsburgh native Steven Chbosky, is a pitch-perfect take on the teen angst/teen misfit genre.
This is not an easy task. These movies tend to feature young, fresh faces, few stars and low budgets. They're often confused with sappy coming-of-age tales and the resilient-as-a-cockroach teen sex comedy, but can overlap with either. Even the best-received attempts tend to be manipulating or emotionally inert, and feature mangled dialogue for teen characters that sounds like it has been chewed on by multiple sets of faulty translation software, such as “Easy A” (2010) and “Juno” (2007). In fact, it's been pretty slim pickings since 2001, when the superb “Ghost World” and “Donnie Darko” came out.
Set in the mid-'80s middle-class suburban Pittsburgh, “Perks” revolves around Charlie (Logan Lerman), a reclusive, introverted kid getting ready for his first day of high school, and the inevitable avalanche of casual cruelties that typically befall the low man on the social totem pole. He knows he can expect little sympathy for his condition, which includes recent stay in a psychiatric hospital after the suicide of his best and only friend. Becoming an ignored wallflower is really the best-case scenario.
Slowly, haltingly, he begins to make connections. First, with an English teacher (Paul Rudd), who spots his writing talent and supplies him with interesting unassigned books to read. Then, he notices a flamboyant, extroverted senior, Patrick (Ezra Miller), in shop class, where the teacher (Pittsburgh-based special-effects guru Tom Savini) insists on calling him “Nothing.” Charlie takes a risk and sits next to Patrick at a football game, where they're joined by his stunning step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). They're cheering for Brad (Johnny Simmons), the quarterback and Patrick's secret boyfriend.
Patrick and Sam take a liking to the smart, low-key freshman.
“Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys,” says Sam.
Soon, he's introduced to their circle of friends — a stoner dude, shoplifting goth girl and a motor-mouthed punk rocker named Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), who complicates Charlie's obvious infatuation with Sam.
Much (adult) attention will go towards the preponderance of “hot-button issues” in “Perks,” including drug use, homosexuality, mental illness, suicide and abusive relationships.
Yet, there's also kind of romantic, charming innocence to it, as isolated outcasts from one of the last pre-Internet generations struggle to find each other through making mixtapes, music fanzines and midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The film's late-'80s setting is soft-pedaled almost everywhere — not everyone's wearing Cosby sweaters, for instance — but “Perks” goes hard on the period soundtrack, adding audio drama via David Bowie, Nick Drake, The Smiths and Dexys Midnight Runners.
The young cast is exceptionally strong. In particular, Lerman projects both vulnerability and a self-possession that easily captures one's sympathy, and the manic Miller delivers the laugh lines with euphoric brio.
Watson, in her first major post-Harry Potter role, careens a little close to the much-mocked “manic pixie dream girl” that only exists in male movie writers' imaginations — yet steers clear, coming off as slightly damaged and real.
Above all, “Perks” is about the peculiar intensity of friendships made in high school, but also their fragility.
At times, it's almost too perfect a fantasy for anyone who felt like a misfit in high school — which, at times, includes pretty much everyone.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.