Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Author Stephen Chbosky steps behind the camera for the first time to adapt his popular novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," about a troubled Pittsburgh high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who, desperate for friends, gets himself adopted by a clique of misfit seniors: flamboyantly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller), sweet, easy, unselfconfident Sam (Emma Watson), misanthropic Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), rich kleptomaniac Alice (Erin Wilhelmi). It was a mistake not to hand the project to a more experienced director. There's some good material trying to get out here, but Chbosky paces the action so that each line of dialogue gets its moment in the sun. That's not the way life works. People - especially teenagers - talk over one another. It's as simple as a scene in which the kids go home after a party. "Goodbye, Charlie," says Patrick. Pause. "Goodbye, Charlie," says Sam. Unh uh.

The writing in the first half is especially phony-baloney. The character of Charlie, while perfectly companionable, has little to do but look on doe-eyed as the older kids do older-kid things. It's a reactive part. As Patrick, Ezra Miller commands your attention, just as he did playing Tilda Swinton's evil-incarnate son in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," but both roles are largely one-note. Patrick swishes in and out of scenes, talking louder than everyone else and sucking up the air. When Charlie tells the group he's thinking of taking up writing, Patrick suggests he base a story on him and Sam. "Call it 'Slut and the Falcon.' Have us solve crimes." Cringe-inducing.

Emma Watson does better with the part of Sam, a not-stupid girl who gives herself up to all the wrong guys but at least recognizes her own pattern and sees the goodness in Charlie. They share a lovely scene that culminates in Charlie's first kiss, and a few such scenes lend the movie a shambling poignancy. (A closeted romance between Patrick and a star player on the football team also rings true. You can only choose in life from what's available to you.) Unfortunately, everyone in it is an algorithm of the one character trait they've been given or the tragic experiences in their pasts. (Joan Cusack is wasted in a tiny part as a psychiatrist, and though Paul Rudd has more screen time as Charlie's English teacher, who gives him extra books to read, he too goes nowhere.) The movie does a nice job of capturing the drama of high school - how each little slight or kindness matters so much - but these characters need more autonomy, more room to determine themselves.

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