The template for high-school movies hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years, so anyone familiar with the works of John Hughes and Amy Heckerling will probably recognize a lot in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s even set in a sort of vague late-’80s/early ’90s time period (no one uses cell phones or computers; characters make mixtapes for each other on actual cassettes; one character publishes an underground ’zine), which gives it a sense of prefab nostalgia. But writer-director Stephen Chbosky, working from his own novel, brings genuine feeling to his variation on teenage angst and unrequited love, developing soulful characters and a funny but melancholy narrative with a serious emotional payoff.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, who’s dealing with loneliness and depression as he begins his first year of high school. Charlie falls in with a crowd of misfits led by Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, in her first major post-Harry Potter role), on whom Charlie naturally develops a huge crush. The cultural signifiers that Chbosky uses to indicate his characters’ rebel status (The Catcher in the Rye, The Smiths, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) are a little worn out, but part of the movie’s charm is that it shows how the clichéd trappings of teenage rebellion are fresh and new to each generation. And Chbosky goes further by delving into the sometimes dark inner lives of his characters, coming up with a movie that starts out seeming familiar but ends up being universal.