On his first day of high Charlie (Logan Lerman, "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief") keeps his head down, wary of others, something different about him obviously keeping him apart. But when he goes into wood shop, an older student, Patrick (Ezra Miller, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"), is delighting the class with his impersonation of the teacher. Charlie will be pulled into Patrick's circle, which includes his step-sister Sam ("Harry Potter's" Emma Watson), the other half of the glamorous duo who will infatuate Charlie as he learns "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
Adapting his own cult novel, writer/director Stephen Chbosky has created a high school classic which champions the outsider as artist, rebel, intellectual and mix-taper extraordinaire. His is a darker addition to the genre of John Hughes and features an outsized performance from Miller with Watson as his charming if less confident 'partner,' nailing an American accent as she steps out of Hermione Granger's skin. Chbosky only falters sketching out Charlie's history while trying to keep it a secret, springing a late act 'twist' which reroutes his narrative a bit too abruptly.
In addition to the surprising friendship of Patrick, an outsider himself due to his flamboyant embrace of his homosexuality in a land of jocks, Charlie makes a strong impression on his English teacher, Bill (Paul Rudd, "Our Idiot Brother"). If Patrick and Sam's language consists of hip indie music (although their unfamiliarity with David Bowie's 'Heroes' seems jarringly false), Bill converses through the beloved books he loans to his favorite student.
At home, Father (Dylan McDermott, TV's 'American Horror Story') and Mother (Kate Walsh, TV's 'Grey's Anatomy') keep a close watch, as does older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev, TV's 'The Vampire Diaries'), but when Charlie witnesses her getting slapped across the face, he's the one who becomes protector. The incident also seems to spark the first of a series of memories of Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey, "Win Win"), another troubled family member who lived with the family one winter after a suicide attempt when Charlie was very young.
Life with Patrick and Sam is increasingly glamorous, from Sam's 'flying' on the flatbed of Patrick's pickup, to their dance floor clearing antics at a school mixer when a 'good' song is played ('Come On Eileen'). Patrick takes Charlie to his first 'grown up' party where Charlie tells Sam about a best friend who killed himself and where he meets punk Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman, TV's 'Parenthood'), who will move in on him much to his dismay (and Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), the pretty but most nondescript member of the group). This is also where Sam learns of Patrick's 'love that dare not speak its name' when he finds him kissing football jock Brad (Johnny Simmons, "21 Jump Street") in an upstairs bedroom.
Charlie's first high school year is packed as he falls harder and harder for Sam, who'll be leaving for college if she'd only get accepted. He's inducted into their 'Rocky Horror' ritual, takes a game of Truth or Dare a bit too literally and does something he'd never have done at the beginning of the year - physically stands up for a friend in public. But every traumatic moment nudges those long ago memories further along until a long awaited moment triggers the climatic moment he'd been suppressing.
This damaged trio - the suicidal depressive with repressed memories, the gay man with the closeted lover and the 'it' girl lacking confidence - all help each other move on set to a great soundtrack. It's high school as group therapy heightened with teenaged dramatics and while if at first it seems a bit unbelievable that the gorgeous creatures who are Patrick and Sam would take someone like Charlie under their wing, the actors will the concept into being. Watson aces her first post-Potter role as the type of girl who wins male admiration but cannot find any for herself, but it's Miller's movie - he's an original, unafraid to let his freak flag fly and his presence is exhilarating. That he makes his character so inherently decent is an unexpected twist.
Chbosky has created memorable characters and set them into a series of yearbook moments - the 'feeling infinite' of shared memory and musical discovery, the giving of character-defining gifts, the local cross-clique hangout, the autumnal chill of a football game. But when Charlie's psyche shatters, the film itself seems to splinter. Charlie's family life is never as grounded as his fashionable friendships and when they go their separate ways, the air goes out of the room. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" may eventually flatline, but it works as a memoir on the power of friendship and its time and place make it soundtrack-ready.
Robin gives "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" a C+.
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