If you're lucky, there was a moment or two in your otherwise turbulent or tedious teen years that felt magical — a night with friends or on your own (but usually with friends) when your world suddenly opened up, you felt older or freer or wiser or something. These firework blips dotting our memories are what many of us use to plot our map of the past. The night of the party, that exciting kiss at a friend's house, etc. They're our landmarks. By definition they are few, if not always far between. And yet in the new film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, nearly every frame is imbued with the hush and wonder of a Big Moment. This kid's entire life is scored to wistful guitar music! A little bit of that is all well and good, most real teens experience a wistful guitar music moment or two themselves, but a whole movie of that sentiment is a bit much.
The kid in question is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy high school freshman with a troubled emotional past who exists in complete obscurity at his seemingly bully-filled school. (Everyone is really mean.) We learn fairly early on that Charlie's best friend killed himself the previous spring and there is some other sort of family trauma lurking in the past, but mostly Charlie just seems a bit too innocent for this big, tormenting school. He likes books and thus has a special bond with a kindly English teacher (huggable Paul Rudd) but that seems to be his only social outlet until he meets Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), two step-sibling seniors who like cool music (The Smiths, Nick Drake — it's vaguely supposed to be the early 1990s) and are free-spirited adventurers. Patrick is gay and knows it (he's even surreptitiously hooking up with the star football player) while Sam is kind and pretty with an alluring streak of sadness in her eyes. Charlie is immediately smitten, as the pair takes him under their wing and shows him a world of Rocky Horror singalongs, weed brownie parties, and standing in the flatbed of a pickup truck with your arms outstretched while David Bowie's "Heroes" plays and you zoom through a tunnel and over a bridge. ("I feel infinite," Charlie says then, in one of the movie's most groan-inducingly dreamy moments.) Charlie also has a big ol' crush on Sam, but is too much of a timid nice guy to do anything about it. Will he kiss her by film's end? The answer will not surprise you.
Perks is based on the popular late-'90s novel by Steven Chbosky, who also adapted and directed the film. Chbosky turns out to be a perfectly competent filmmaker, but knowing that this is his own material and watching how in awe the film is of every beautiful thing these angelic, soul-spirit teens do makes him seem a bit too fawning over his own stuff. The film's many big moments — The Party, The Dance, The Fight, The Revelation — are all handled well individually, but when all rolled up into one oozing pile the whole thing feels far too mushy. Chbosky films with a dark palette and lets the camera swoon and dip and hover like a teenager's heart, so it all looks very nice and indie, but at root this is pretty standard ABC Family young adult soup.
Charlie is played by the supposedly up-and-coming actor Logan Lerman, who is a perfectly likable actor but is badly miscast here. He's a bit too old for the role (he was 19 when the movie filmed) and he's got way too much innate swagger. Lerman's other roles have mostly had him playing cocky kids — the demigod hero Percy Jackson, an impetuous swordsman with an eye for the ladies in Paul W.S. Anderson's bizarrely enjoyable The Three Musketeers — and that is, I suspect, because he's got such a foxy (in the animal sense) air about him. There's a sparkle of trickery in his eyes and a pelt-y purr to his voice that just doesn't communicate hooded, emotionally wounded 14-year-old. Miller and Watson fare a bit better, though Miller is such an obvious pretentious actor-type that it's hard to endear to his irony-masking-vulnerability the way we are supposed to, and Watson seems a bit out of step playing an all-American teen. (Her accent is fine, not great.) The real standout of the cast is child actor turned adult actor Mae Whitman, playing a member of Charlie's new social circle who develops an ill-advised crush on him. Whitman is natural and funny and touching the way one remembers their friends being in high school. She's not glowing with some magical eternal knowledge the way the rest of these faintly ridiculous kids are, and it's refreshing.
I don't mean to bully this movie too much, as it's such a well-intentioned little thing. It's just that it fancies itself so special, it sticks out so sorely as something that takes itself too seriously, that it's hard not to poke fun. What was a fine young adult novel (written in epistolary style, something that's used only vaguely in the film), something of a gentle outlier, has become, in its translation to film, a mainstream poser. It's trying to act all smart and edgy and outsider-y, and for a few minutes we believe it, but really it's just another corny teen thing that we'll forget by this time next year.