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The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Sacred Institution

I wonder if studio executives actually watch movie trailers before signing off on them. I used to blame those who put previews together, but in the world of corporate creativity, nothing gets out the door without at least a handful of approvals. However that whole crazy system works, someone (or several someones) needs to be shit-canned for thinking that this is an effective advertisement for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Simply put, Stephen Chbosky's film (which he directed and adapted from his own novel) is the best movie about high school that I've seen in a decade. Notice, I didn't say "high school movie". Those are typically aimed at one of two types of teenagers: the fictive kind whom middle-aged screenwriters assume have never seen a movie featuring a pan around campus, where the new kid gets the scoop from his or her socially-off-kilter-but-still-known-by-everyone new best friend ("Over there, you've got your stoners; here, you've got your popular kids..."). There are thousands of these films, and they're all pitched as updated versions of the genre's rare formula-busters (Clueless, The Breakfast Club, etc.), only starring whichever young pop sensation/barely-legal heartthrob has just entered the scene (see Fun Size and Easy A. Better yet, don't).

The other kind of high school movie is any hyper-violent, sexually explicit, or generally vulgar mainstream picture that most kids are too young to attend. On the surface, they're not aimed at this demographic, but teen attendance is always the goal. Because adult audiences often don't have the same disposable income as teens, it's crucial that filmmakers include enough exploding heads, tit shots, and diarrhea jokes to not only get asses in seats but also regularly distract these little monsters from their rampant texting and screwing around. This also keeps theatre managers from having to refund too many audience members who actually belong there.

There's no science in my theory--only experience, speculation, and a ton of hypocrisy. I was never a texter (having come of age in a time when phones were just phones, and bringing one to the movies meant leaving a hole in the kitchen wall). But I was drawn to slasher films and stupid teen fare as a kid, and am most certainly guilty of being obnoxious from time to time. But I would never have insisted that movie studios build a business model around me, even during that silly era. Sadly, we're in such dire straits now that only mutants go outside for entertainment--and so mutant entertainment rules the day.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a movie about high school, meaning it should ring true for anyone who survived those awkward years and were (or are) savvy enough to not think of them as the best time of their lives.* Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a freshman in 1991 whose best friend committed suicide the year before. The youngest of three kids, Charlie is shy and sensitive, where his older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) is a popular upper-classman, and eldest sibling Chris (Zane Holtz) has parlayed his star-quarterback status into a Penn State scholarship.

The first day is a nightmare of cliques and hazing, and Charlie's only connection is with his cool English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd)--which, he admits, is pretty pathetic. In shop class, he develops a hero's crush on a slumming senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller), whose job it is to annoy grumpy Mr. Callahan (Tom Savini) enough to not hold him back again. Later on, Charlie spies Patrick at a football game and slyly changes seats a few times to get closer to him. The outgoing boy sucks the shy kid into his orbit, which includes alternative-kid parties; long, fast drives down the highway in the middle of the night; and the lovely, mysterious Sam (Emma Watson).

Charlie gains acceptance from this stoned, drunk collective of freaks and geeks. He learns secrets about the popular kids and his newfound friends that help unearth a world of damage that he'd suppressed since early childhood. If you haven't figured this out yet, The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't a comedy; the funny bits you saw in that trailer are the only moments of levity in this heavy, moving drama about the courage of finding one's voice--despite the possibility that there's nothing good to say with it. I won't go spoil any of the revelations, as they're dominoes in a surprisingly smooth left-turn film. In fact, I think there may be one too many big, dark secrets here.

Seriously, ninety percent of the characters have at least one horrifying, traumatic story to share. Fortunately, the cast is so good at being relatable that even the dramatic pile-ons only sting for a few seconds. You may not have been one of these kids, but chances are you knew them--or ignored them--in high school. Some have favorable compared Chbosky's movie to the works of John Hughes, but I place Perks firmly in Cameron Crowe territory. It's tender and funny, sure, but there's a heart-wrenching authenticity to Charlie that makes him more Lloyd Dobler than John Bender.

Lerman, Miller, and Watson are as compelling a leading trio as you'e likely to find anywhere. I felt every moment of their relationship, from first interactions through terrible fights and, finally, the painful transition into adulthood. Patrick and Sam are seniors, and I can't tell you how relieved I was that Charlie didn't instantly find a new group of friends to hang out with after his entire world ran away to college. In real life, people move on. If we're lucky, they come back to visit. If we're very lucky, our strongest relationships evolve in order to survive. Chbosky ends his film on a positive note--but not a definitive one.

It's sad that the movie came and went with so little fanfare. Be it the lack of sex and gore, that unforgivably awful trailer, or some other factor too depressing to consider, I'm afraid that its under-performance may mean less risky and interesting movies about high school in the future. Who knows? Maybe The Perks of Being a Wallflower will find cult status on home video. God help us all if we're stuck wading through high school movies for another ten years.

*There will always be people for whom these really were the golden years, but I'm not here to kick those poor bastards while they're down.

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