Football games and awkward dances, late-night gabfests at the local diner and tentative first kisses — they're all there over the course of a school year in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
This coming-of-age drama, based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name, may sound like total formula, right down to the rebellious thrill of experimenting with drugs and alcohol and the liberation of experiencing "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." But there's also a darkness that follows its main character, even at his happiest, which keeps the film from turning completely safe and self-satisfied.
"Perks" features a well-chosen cast, an eclectic music mix (David Bowie, New Order, Air Supply) and some moments of uncomfortable honesty as well as dreamlike wonder. And it's anchored by strong performances on two ends of the acting spectrum: from Logan Lerman as Charlie, the high-school freshman of the film's title whose reserved nature can't hide his obvious intelligence and sweetness, and from Ezra Miller in a showy turn as Patrick, the quick-witted and gay senior-class clown who takes Patrick under his wing. (The role couldn't be more different from Miller's frightening work as the diabolical teen in "We Need to Talk about Kevin.")
The young woman who completes their little triangle of blissful misfits is the perky but damaged Sam, played by "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson (without a trace of a British accent). Also a senior, Sam is Patrick's stepsister and Charlie's first serious crush. Maybe they invite Charlie into their inner sanctum a bit too quickly, but there's an irreverent, playful energy to their antics and a subversive sense of humor that makes you not mind so much.
Directed and written by "Perks" novelist Stephen Chbosky, the film follows these characters and their friends through all the rituals of a school year in suburban Pittsburgh. He features heavy use of voiceover early on, as Charlie narrates the letters he writes to a mysterious, unseen recipient, but there's also great delicacy in the characters' intimate interactions.
Charlie is more unstable and unsure of himself than the average entering freshman following the suicide of his best friend. The death messed him up, and it marked him by association. Maybe Patrick and Sam recognize his outsider status in themselves; in no time, the three are inseparable. The film takes place in a hazy sort of late-'80s, early-'90s time frame — no one has a cellphone, and mix tapes are a crucial medium for expressing teen angst — which adds to its feeling of universality. The melancholy "Asleep" by The Smiths appears so prominently, it's practically a character itself.
Charlie is very much along for the ride with these crazy older kids, including Mae Whitman as the self-described Buddhist/punk rocker who thrusts herself upon him and insists she's his girlfriend. But memories haunt him of something ugly that happened in his childhood, until he finally unravels in a third-act scene that allows Lerman to bust out, show some range and reveal he can really, truly act.
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," may not do anything groundbreaking, but it tells a familiar story in small, thoughtful ways.
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references and a fight — all involving teens. 103 minutes. Three stars out of four.