Friday, March 08, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

 The Perks of Being a Wallflower redefines the classic American coming-of-age story. Writer/director Steven Chbosky has raised the bar on the traditional adolescent drama, with an emotionally-charged narrative infused with just enough bold strokes of joy and heartbreak to set a new benchmark for what the genre can accomplish.
Based on Chbosky's own novel of the same name, the movie is about growing up in a tough and unforgiving world, yes, with its requisite lessons on overcoming obstacles. But it also touches on tragic notions of loss and grief, rarely explored in coming-of-age films with such mastery.
Chbosky has said that if viewers take away one message from the film, it's that "you are not alone." This seemingly simple thought can't come at a better time, as bullying and its often devastating consequences have dominated headlines in recent months.
The book's premise is deceptively straightforward. 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) keeps a diary of letters addressed to someone real or imagined. "Dear Friend," each entry begins, as he recalls his tumultuous high school days, celebratory one moment, heartbreaking the next, but always poignant and full of promise. The movie brings Charlie's writing to life, with a charming cadre of schoolmates (and the occasional peripheral adult) taking the stage as Charlie stands in the spotlight. It's an ideal structure for a narrative as free of boundaries as the promising world of the adolescent. Charlie is everyteen, we've all been there, or have we? The Perks of Being a Wallflower wanders down paths seldom seen on screen, into surprisingly shocking territory that challenges audiences to open their hearts.
The indie look and feel of the film is undeniable from the start. Single-point lighting is used effectively as a plot device. Charlie's face often appears split down the center, one side brightly lit, the other in soft shadow, mirroring his conflicted soul and sense of confusion, trapped between two worlds. Light falls gently on him when he's serene, more harshly in moments of crisis. The darkness hides the secrets he deftly keeps to himself as the narrative unfolds.
Audiences of all ages will be able to relate to the 80s modern rock soundtrack -- evocative songs you undoubtedly know and love, spanning generations from Boomers to today's teens. Sound design is brilliantly orchestrated with action timed perfectly to the music cues. Michael Brook's original score is appropriately minimal. Nothing needs to be underlined here in a story that has no filler or room to breathe. Not a frame is wasted on extended character development or conventional transitions in this visualization of Charlie's nonstop roller-coaster of a diary.
Andrew Dunn's stunning cinematography patiently engages the viewer, eschewing the hand-held shaky cam style so prevalent in the genre. His use of slow motion dolly shots brings us, literally, into Charlie's world. The boy's fear and sense of unease is heightened by intense closeups that reveal the bittersweet emptiness in his eyes. There's a lot more going on in that youthful head than he allows those around him to see, but even he isn't aware of it. We are but voyeurs, watching, examining, trying to make sense of Charlie's vulnerability and confusion.
Editor Mary Jo Markey's loving hand allows us to embrace the plot's twists and turns without skipping a beat. The pace is calm but deliberate, and it's clear that Dunn, Markey, and the rest of the production team are as devoted to Chbosky's vision as a boy experiencing his first romance. You only have one chance to get it right.
Chbosky has unquestionably assembled one of the most talented young ensemble casts in recent memory. As Charlie's love interest Sam, 22-year-old Emma Watson dominates the screen with the maturity and wisdom that only a polished veteran could bring to the role. Nina Dobrev, Julia Garner, and Mae Whitman are the free-spirited girls who surround Charlie and attempt to bring him to life. Their performances shine with an authenticity that is clearly rooted in passion for the material. On the male side, Johnny Simmons portrays football jock Brad, whose enigmatic personality figures prominently in the story in ways which will be left to the viewer. Nicholas Braun and Reece Thompson are standouts in support and much-needed comic relief.
As Charlie's would-be best friend Patrick, Ezra Miller is shockingly brilliant as a gay-go-lucky teen who lives life as if every day is his last. His joie de vivre is infectious and vacuums the pain out of anyone who comes near.
But The Perks of Being a Wallflower primarily rests on the shoulders of Logan Lerman. As Charlie, his ability to play down to 15 (he was 19 at the time) owes itself to a physical transformation he brings to every role -- in this case, widening his eyes and keeping an expressionless face that projects puppy dog innocence. His posture, walk, and pattern of speech all serve to underscore Charlie's youthful vulnerability. However The Perks of Being a Wallflower is remembered, wherever it stands in the pantheon of coming-of-age pictures, Lerman's authentic characterization of Chbosky's semi-autobiographical protagonist should stand as one of the most iconic adolescent portrayals of our time.
Some films are intensely personal, and that's as it should be. Art should move you, and you bring your own life experience to the table when considering it. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was so much more than I imagined. I expected to be moved but I had no idea where the film would take me. Whether or not you will be similarly affected is something you'll need to discover for yourself. I think you will.

1 comment:

  1. The pasts of each character may be a little too dark for some viewers, but a worthwhile watch if they can get past it.