Based on the 1999 bestselling young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky, Wallflower follows Charlie through that fateful year from the time he is friendless and mocked for doing crazy stuff like reading The Great Gatsby and (gasp) enjoying it, to his tearful good-bye to newfound friends.
And who are those newfound friends?
There’s Patrick, played by a flamboyant Ezra Miller who portrayed the anything-but-flamboyant Kevin in last year’s bad-seed thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin.
In Wallflower, he is the gay and witty best friend, an indie version of the kind you see in sitcoms, who introduces Charlie to all his eccentric buddies including Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a Buddhist punk rocker who gets accepted to Harvard, and Susan (Julie Garner) an apparent deaf-mute (so few are her lines) who likes to steal jeans from department stores. Last but not least is Sam, (Emma Watson), Patrick’s half sister, a mousy girl with a slutty past and eye for Charlie.
Each of them have sordid pasts the way only people in movies seem to, but Chbosky’s characters are distinctive enough, and they’re a fun clique to hang out with, whether they’re rocking The Rocky Horror Picture Show or smoking dope and admiring the carpet.
Privileged kids from a Pittsburgh suburb, they lead a seemingly idyllic existence attending class, going to football games, partying and studying. But the bottom of the flowerpot holds nastiness not seen among the roses, and Charlie has a problem, which he lays out for us in letters to a friend who committed suicide before the beginning of the story (a contrived and simplistic narrative device).
Thing is, while there are numerous references to Charlie’s emotional instability, he usually seems to be the most anchored person in the room. So when larger emotional crises befall him later in the movie, it feels forced, pushing Wallflower to the edge of mediocrity at its dramatically most critical stage.
For this reason, as well as an overall unevenness, a good movie is kept from being a great one.
A moment in the first act where Sam stands in the bay of a pickup truck while Patrick floors it through a tunnel — David Bowie’s Heroes blaring on the soundtrack — is an uplifting moment that has no lift. The scene just lays there.
Yet other moments deliver genuine emotional punch due to fine acting from the entire ensemble, particularly Lerman and Watson who achieve an authentic intimacy that effortlessly draws the audience in.
Lerman has shown a steady hand in a career defined by mainstream choices like Percy Jackson as well as art house titles like 3:10 to Yuma.
Next up, he will reunite with Wallflower costar, Emma Watson for Darren Aronofksy’s Noah starring Russell Crowe.
Over the years he has managed carve out a firm niche for himself but now, like Watson, is in the process of making that daunting leap to grownup roles which, more often than not, marks the end of a young actor’s career.
For Watson, with half the world growing up getting to know her as Hermione Granger, her post-Potter career has been defined by smart choices, including a supporting part in last year’s My Week With Marilyn and Sofia Coppola’s upcoming The Bling Ring.
In the Potter movies, Watson demonstrated adequate chops as a child actor who grew up to infuse her performances with genuine range and depth.
She is at her best in Wallflower, delivering an incisive portrayal that doesn’t overwhelm the ensemble. Enjoying a natural energy with Miller (who brings lightning to his scenes), she underplays opposite Lerman, particularly toward the end of the movie, in scenes that are stirring but never saccharine.
In his second foray behind the camera, Chbosky demonstrates a strong hand with his cast and has written some splendid scenes for them to play, but occasionally overreaches on story points, as in the wind up.
His movie favors many of the tropes of the coming-of-age genre but seldom slips into stereotype. Fans of the book will likely embrace this adaptation. And if you’ve never heard of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, you could do a lot worse.