Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Painfully unaware of its teenage angst forebears, The Perks of Being a Wallflower presents itself as the mold for all high school dramedies. Based on Stephen Chbosky’s novel, itself no revelation when it was published in 1999, and both written for the screen and directed by the author, the film is the poster child for cinematic recycling in all the worst ways. Its flag planted in much-explored territory, the film trudges forth with an air of false originality, putting its stamp on one stale genre tenet after another. It’s a pitiful sight, especially considering the mostly talented cast, and though someone should really put the poor thing out of its misery, on it goes into sure oblivion.
The story’s focus is on Charlie (Logan Lerman, bobbing with the awkward nerves of preteen William Miller in Almost Famous) and his eventful freshman year of high school. Coming off a nervous breakdown, Charlie counts the days until he graduates while struggling to fit in socially and academically. Enter Patrick (Ezra Miller), a charismatic, rebellious senior who welcomes Charlie into his world, which includes his equally charming step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). As the siblings introduce Charlie to their tight-knit crew of misfits and late night Pittsburgh wanderings, he comes into his own but not without some intense growing pains.
Sound familiar? It’s only the blueprint for coming of age films, reheated and served over a quarter of a century outside its celluloid prime. Unoriginality is never an asset, but rarely is it presented with a such an ultra-bright shiny “New” sticker, as it bafflingly is here. To make matters worse, the hyperbolic cluelessness with which these familiarities are presented transform what starts as a promising, agreeable film into something truly unfortunate.
Set in an unspecific late ‘80s/early ’90s year in which seemingly every facet of pop culture exists except John Hughes movies, the film acts as if it’s the first time each of its character types and actions have been presented onscreen. Therefore, such supposed firsts emerge as a gay teenager; a party with teens on drugs; a young person who “wants to be a writer”; the presence of a David Bowie song; teens who love The Rocky Horror Picture Show; and a teacher who hands his personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye to his favorite student. These aren’t bad details; far from it. But the convergence of them in the same 100 minute film makes for a murderer’s row of cliches.
In each of these instances, the characters are so overly genuine in their attention-drawing speech and actions that it’s almost as if Chbosky is skewering their naiveté and supposed freshness. That’s an intriguing approach, a less gimmicky Not Another Teen Movie, but there’s nothing in his film to suggest that level of self-awareness. Instead, it really is just another color-within-the-lines adolescent film, so ignorantly rooted in teen classics that it has nothing new to say.
One redeeming element, however, is Chbosky’s overall eye for direction. His shot compositions are clear and thoughtful, and though Watson’s Sam riding through a tunnel, standing in the bed of a pick-up with “Heroes” blaring from the stereo isn’t quite the transcendent moment he’s after, it’s still pretty magical. For scattered images such as this that at least try for something different, The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn’t a complete waste. With so much similar fare already out there, though, Chbosky’s inability to recognize past standards and adapt dooms the work early and often.