Throughout “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the new film based on the bestselling young adult novel, the main characters are always referencing other media. When teenage outcast Charlie (Logan Lerman) meets the hip, beautiful Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), they immediately begin discussing music by The Smiths, and shortly after they’re attending screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Even Charlie’s teacher jumps in on the act, handing him a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
This setup sounds like yet another coming-of-age flim designed for hipsters because that is ultimately what viewers will see. But the three leads manage to take the predictable story and build some real weight into the relationships. Lerman, with his vulnerable eyes and soft demeanor, makes an appealing lead; the “Percy Jackson” actor is surprisingly affecting as he charts Charlie’s ups and downs. Watson, in her first leading role post-“Harry Potter,” is a tad miscast as the spunky manic pixie dream girl — the part would have been perfect for a young Winona Ryder — but a sweet chemistry develops with Lerman. Watson also convincingly portrays Sam’s varying emotions without losing her American accent. But Miller, who was phenomenal in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” completely steals the film as the out-and-proud Patrick; he takes what could have been a one-note stereotype and makes it human.
The performances range from good to excellent, but the rest of the movie fails to live up to the stellaractors. Directed and adapted by the novel’s author, Stephen Chbosky, “Wallflower” isn’t translated to the screen — it’s transcribed. Chbosky plays it too safe with his own text, refusing to reshape it for a new medium. Subplots involving Charlie’s teacher and his sister (Nina Dobrev) feel ancillary to the main story, and the flashbacks to his late aunt don’t reveal so much as muddle the storyline. When Chbosky does attempt some cinematic tricks, they’re heavy-handed and over-edited.
These missteps are tragic, for in spite of its familiarity, the material could have made for a much better film. Unfortunately, it’s too firmly chained to its source to stand on its own. In the movie’s strongest sequence, the newly forged trio drives through a tunnel, and Sam stands up through the car’s sunroof with wind flying through her hair as David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays on the radio. It sounds hackneyed on paper, but it works — until Lerman blurts out that he feels infinite, turning a transcendent moment into a cheesy one. While “Wallflower” is effective in its own way — fans of the novel will likely enjoy it — its loyalty to the words ultimately keeps its power finite.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 20 print edition. J.R. Hammerer is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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