Coming-of-age dramas can be incredibly emotionally rewarding if handled correctly, but they need to strike a delicate balance. As they tend to address universally identifiable themes the challenge lies in crafting a protagonist who is more than just a cypher through whom said themes are explored, whilst not making that character so unique that the audience struggles to identify with them.
Directing from his own script (it in turn an adaptation of his own early 90s set novel), Stephen Chbosky manages to hit that sweet spot for the majority of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s running time.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, the troubled teen who finds himself a social outcast due to an introversion brought about by two (latterly revealed) events from his past. The former Percy Jackson and Fourth Musketeer is a revelation in the role after previously having played arrogant and kinda douchey characters he’s undeniably superb as the awkward and damaged wannabe writer. He’s an engaging and endearing lead, and you can instantly understand how this kid is ignored by some of his peers while others grow to love him.
The latter is in evidence when Charlie is taken under the wing of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson) who invite him to join their social group on “the island of misfit toys.” They’re a group that achingly strive to be alternative and cool. They listen to The Smiths (because that’s movie shorthand for cool – even if they don’t know a Bowie classic when they hear one), take recreational drugs, perform in a Rocky Horror tribute group and are wonderfully typified by Mae Whitman’s argumentative Buddhist, Mary Elizabeth.
This isn’t to say they’re unlikable – they’re just your typical teens with a lack of self-awareness. Their hearts are in the right place and crucially there’s something extremely authentic about them, and in terms of the narrative they’re exactly what Charlie needs. In Patrick he has someone to draw him out of his shell. In Sam he has someone to love, and someone whose problems he can focus on to forget his own. And in Mary Elizabeth he has someone to provide a fun little second act subplot to keep things ticking along.
Blessedly, Chbosky clearly cares about all of his main characters and tries his best not to sell them short. At a time when Ruby Sparks has us re-examining the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ conceit it’s refreshing that Watson’s Sam just about avoids becoming that cliché. She’s well-rounded and her teen angst is just as interesting and justifiably grounded as Charlie’s – it’s just a shame for both the character and Watson that her arc develops as much off screen as it does on. She shares great chemistry with Ezra Miller (and their dancing is certainly something to behold) but it’s he who really lights up the screen. It’s to Miller’s credit that any memories of Kevin are quickly banished. Be it when being flamboyantly camp in group situations or during more tender, personal moments he’s always superb.
The real strength of the film though lies in its authenticity. There are many scenes, characters, details and interactions that you’ll swear have been lifted from your very own adolescent years (regardless of which era you grew up in). It may be slightly over-ambitious in terms of what it attempts to grapple with in its final act, but even then it’s incredibly warm and well-meaning. Like most coming-of-age movies the soundtrack is great too – and ‘Perks’ (which is what the kids are calling it) has certainly struck lucky by wisely choosing the song that soundtracked our Olympics summer as its very own anthem. In fact, ‘Perks’ may just be the best coming-of-age movie since Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, and that’s high praise indeed.