The Perks of Being a Wallflower, whose trailer and general concept checked pretty much all of the boxes on my "must-avoid" list: artsy teens listening to hip music and being pained by how much more sensitive they were than everybody else, set in a far-enough removed time period that it's hard to say whether it's speaking to the experience of current adolescents, or to 35-year-olds with nostalgia for mix tapes, all directed by a first-timer adapting his own book. But a couple of people that I really, really trust had kind, even enthusiastic things to say about it, and when the screener showed up, it was with a bit of annoyance but no real trepidation that I added it to the catch-up pile.
The good news, sort of, is that it surely could have been a whole hell of a lot worse, and the film at least manages to boast one of 2012's best live-wire performances in the form of Ezra Miller's exuberantly gay high school senior Patrick, a million miles from the staring psychopath he played in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a year ago. This in the face of falling into all of the tar pits of sensitive pseudo-autobiographical coming-of-age stories, from its intensely clichéd signposts - I swear, these goddamn stories about socially awkward adolescent males who want to be writers, you'd think that once the author would come up with some marginally more creative way of hiding the link between himself and his protagonist - to its dire over-reliance on nostalgia-packed music to do far too much emotional heavy-lifting, to its blithe unawareness that middle-class white suburban kids might not have a universal monopoly on suffering.
Writer-director Stephen Chbosky's story, which allegedly takes place in Pittsburgh in 1991 and '92 (the only on-screen evidence is a quick reference to the nascent Seattle music scene, while most of the music and clothes imply something more like 1988), but occurs more in the hazy space of memory of a time before there was an internet, but after the great pop culture upheavals at the end of the 1970s, concerns high school freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is introduced to us in the act of writing a letter to a person he's never met, who will serve intermittently as his sounding board as the movie goes on - a relic of the 1999 YA novel's epistolary form that splits the difference between intriguingly dramatising Charlie's profound difficulty with social interaction and lazily foisting voiceover on the movie to patch over the tricky bits - and in the more pervasive act of freaking out about life in high school. His first day is an almost complete disaster, but soon he manages to insinuate himself into the company of step-siblings Patrick (Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), two seniors with a well-developed sense of outsider culture - the Smiths, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the whole nine yards -who take the nervous 14-year-old under their care with the enthusiasm one might ordinarily reserve for a wounded bird, and along with their oddball clique of happy outcasts, teach him how to be brave and alive. Though, Patrick and Sam's ministrations notwithstanding, it actually takes a fantastically ill-judged and easily-guessed twist mired in dime-store Freudianism to "solve" Charlie's social woes, which does rather tend to undercut the message in a way that Chbosky couldn't actually have intended.
It's easy to pick on the script, which differs from any given John Hughes movie in the '80s only in that... well, I'm sure there's something. It's a worn-out script, is my point, that includes a few groaning lines (and, disproportionately, hands them off to Sam), a few nicely observed (Charlie's accidental first encounter with marijuana, the spectacularly end of his awkward first romantic relationship), and an overwhelming sense of self-seriousness that the characters themselves would not, I suspect, hold with; certainly, the freewheeling and desperately joyful Patrick couldn't possibly endorse Charlie's lumpy monologues, particularly the overweening one that ends the film in the full flush of teenage navel-gazing. And a massive plot-point involves this cluster of extremely savvy indie music buffs in 1991 somehow not managing to recognise David Bowie's legendary 1977 single "Heroes". Christ, man, I think I would have recognised "Heroes" in 1991, and I was ten.
Anyway, it's easy, and fun, to pick on the script. But not very fair - its worst sins are those of generic convention, and the film is on the right side of the "high school coming of age" bell curve. Besides, the point of this kind of film is in the hanging-out, not the nuances of plot; and Perks of Being a Wallflower does certainly give us some good people to hang out with: as mentioned, Miller's Patrick is absurdly captivating in all ways, stealing the movie so much that it's not even fair. Lerman, obliged to underplay his character as a shy, observational, quiet boy (and he does this well), has no chance to pull focus from Miller's antics, or Mae Whitman's as the nasty-minded Buddhist punk who provides Charlie with his first, unsatisfactory love affair. The only weak link, really, is Watson, who has missed the memo that her character is a effervescent free spirit, and who horribly fumbles the most important scene in her character's whole arc (involving the reveal of past trauma). But since hers is the second-biggest role, the weak link in question is more than a little damaging.
Whatever, it's fun to spend time with these characters, and that counts. I regret most of the choices Chbosky makes about where to put his camera, and I think the suffocatingly sober energy of the film could have been helped if anybody else had stepped in at some point, even if it was just to give the script another pass. The film is rather to stock-issue for its own good, but every generation needs its own touchstones, I guess; I'm not quite sure which generation, exactly, is supposed to be feeling this one, but I hope they find it.