Has there ever been a time when you were among friends and felt as if you truly belonged, yet were aware at the same instant that the joy was fleeting and you’d soon be alone — and that the pain of loss would be almost as intense as the bliss? That’s the feeling Stephen Chbosky captures in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, his exquisite adaptation of his best-selling YA novel about a Pittsburgh high-school freshman who doesn’t fit in and then all of a sudden does, for a spell.
The movie is set in the early nineties, before widespread Internet and texting, back when alone meant unconnected, and misfits had no instant access to others of their ilk. (Chbosky was born in 1970.) Charlie (Logan Lerman) arrives in high school having lost his best friend the previous spring to suicide, and he’s literally counting the days until college. Casually bullied, snickered at by girls who liked him fine before puberty, he tries not to speak — he’s so conscious of his classmates’ ridicule he doesn’t raise his hand when he knows the answers to questions posed by his English teacher (the ever-boyish Paul Rudd). Charlie has deep funks, blackouts, and mysterious visions of the doting aunt (Melanie Lynskey) who died when he was 7. He can only share his heart in anonymous letters to an unnamed recipient chosen because Charlie heard about him (or her) from a girl: “She said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.” It’s not much of a connection, but Charlie is desperate to unload.
Chbosky co-created the postapocalyptic TV series Jericho, and early in the film he has a hard time cramming so much information into so little screen time. But the emotions are all there. At a football game, doleful Charlie musters the courage to sit next to Patrick (Ezra Miller), a fast-talking clown from his shop class sitting with his stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson). “What’s your favorite band?” she asks Charlie. “The Smiths.” “Best breakup band ever!” For Charlie, it’s loooove. For Sam, it’s … strong like, maybe more. Before Charlie knows it, he has been adopted by the stepsiblings and their friends. It’s magic—but every emotion, happy and sad, is so heavy.
Watching Lerman in the bland Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, I thought him one of the few young leads I’d seen in years with no evident talent. I guess context is all. With his thick, dark hair and puppy eyes, he’s probably too handsome for Charlie, but he knows the value of stillness: His movements suggest not just wallflower reticence but paralysis. Pale, stringy-haired Ezra Miller is the dynamo. His Patrick has too much crazy energy to leave his school milieu unmolested—or his gayness in the closet. He and his stepsister have their own screwball ecosystem.
And Watson? She’s visiting royalty trying like mad to be lusty and forward and a fun person. My ideal Sam would be scruffier, her diction less crisp, but Watson is admirably game, and she brings enough movie-star glamour to make Charlie’s longing palpable. All the actors seem like cool people to spend time with. I wanted even more of Nina Dobrev as Charlie’s older sister, Mae Whitman as the senior who puts the moves on Charlie (he doesn’t know how to say no), and Johnny Simmons as the jock who takes up surreptitiously with Patrick. The grown-ups — among them Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh as Charlie’s parents — are neither a positive nor negative force. They have no impact on Charlie’s self-esteem. At this age, it’s all about his peers.
Chbosky lingers on objects that are, culturally speaking, on their last legs: 45-rpm singles, manual typewriters, mix tapes passed from boys to the girls they want to reach. It’s nostalgia with an emphasis on nostos, pain. My favorite shot: Charlie leaving the wall at the homecoming dance and moving toward Sam, head bobbing as if to propel himself forward as Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On, Eileen” begins to accelerate. The music is from so long ago, the feeling of transcendence eternal.
This review originally appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of New York.