Adapted by novelist turned film-and-TV writer turned director Stephen Chbosky from his own YA hit, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower harkens back to that long-ago era when 1600 was a top SAT score, and a choice token of affection was a carefully crafted mixtape. This fact alone might be enough to endear it to any pre-Millennial, but the film is also an earnest, big-hearted ode to friends as support and salvation, and to the talismanic quality a favorite song, treasured hang-out, or shared tradition can take on for a teenager. Incoming freshman Logan Lerman is shy and prone to sitting on the sidelines, but he also has more serious problems, including a recent stay in a psychiatric hospital, and a best friend who committed suicide. At the film’s outset, his ability to make it through the school year intact is in question.
Set in the ’90s in a suburb of Pittsburgh, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower gives its protagonist a stable, loving family (headed up by Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) while acknowledging that that isn’t everything. Lerman’s life improves dramatically when he meets stepsiblings Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, happy outcasts who’ve carved out their own social sanctuary and who take Lerman under their wing. He falls in love with Watson—and, in another way, with the flamboyantly gay Miller—and otherwise falls in with punky Mae Whitman, gothy Erin Wilhelmi, and closeted Johnny Simmons.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower touches on many of the expected pop-cultural milestones of an alternateen experience—The Smiths, Catcher In The Rye, and midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—while managing to capture the sense of awe in finding these things for the first time. The film is ragged-edged and overstuffed—key storylines involving Lerman’s late aunt (Melanie Lynskey) and his English teacher (Paul Rudd) feel rushed—but its portrait of the huge highs and lows of high-school life is generous, sincere, and never condescending. In its acknowledgement that youth can be overwhelmingly difficult, but also filled with the kind of glimmers of promise and possibility that can’t be experienced at any other time, Chbosky has crafted a coming-of-age tale that feels unusually warm and wise.