When a movie is described as “quirky” or “offbeat” or “a coming of age story,” it usually leaves me cold. There’s something about those films that keeps me at a distance – I’m not sure if it’s because I somehow can’t identify with the experiences or because of the ironic distance of the characters themselves. I heard some of these terms used to describe The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I also heard raves about Stephen Chbosky’s novel, which he adapted for the screen and directed himself. So I went in prepared to enjoy it but not feel anything too deeply. Well, I underestimated the depth and honesty of this heartbreaking little film. It’s not heartbreaking in a showy, melodramatic way, but in the way that the transition from childhood to tentative adulthood can be for all of us. Some of the main characters do deal with darker struggles, but those are almost in the background compared to the everyday agonies of trying to find friends and a sense of belonging in high school.
Charlie, played with watchful intelligence by Jack & Bobby’s Logan Lerman, starts high school after a particularly difficult year. He has no friends, and he survives by trying to make himself invisible – not answering questions in class, ducking out of the way when he sees bullies coming down the hall. Then he’s befriended by Patrick (a live-wire Ezra Miller) and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson, doing her best Ally Sheedy impression, but still effective). They’re seniors, more comfortable in their own skins, and they slowly welcome Charlie into their small circle of friends, including Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman, whom I fell in love with on Parenthood and who never has a moment when she appears to be “acting”). Of course, making friends doesn’t make all of Charlie’s problems disappear; it’s just that it can feel that way, and the film captures the sweet wonder, the warmth, of suddenly finding yourself among people who care about you and about the things you love. Chbosky somehow captures things that seem impossible to capture – the sense of eternity you can experience in certain thrilling moments of adolescence; the bittersweet quality of being on the cusp between your past and your future. There’s a beautiful moment with Charlie, Sam, and Patrick riding in a pick-up truck together, hearing David Bowie’s “Heroes” on the radio for the first time. Exhilarated by the song and a sense of freedom, Sam slips out of her seat and stands up in the bed of the truck, arms open to the world, reveling in the moment. The scene captures their sense of discovery – discovering kindred spirits in each other and in this voice coming from the radio (the film is set in the early ‘90s, in the quaint times before the internet could furnish the names of songs or artists in an instant, so the sense of discovery, of hunting for treasure, is heightened by them actually having to search for the song later).
The moment is echoed with even deeper resonance at the end of the film, after Charlie has survived another painful episode and Sam and Patrick are home on break from college. They go out driving together again, with “Heroes” playing on a cassette tape, glorying in a moment already tinged with loss but also full of promise. Charlie muses, “There are people who’ll forget what it’s like to be sixteen when they turn seventeen; I know these will all be stories someday, and our pictures will become old photographs and we’ll all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories; this is happening.”