The ’80s come roaring back in Stephen Chbosky’s sensitive adaptation of his coming-of-age novel, The Perks of a Wall Flower (1999, MTV Books). Though the book and film take place in 1991, there’s a distinct pre-hip hop, early MTV vibe, thanks to the soundtrack, dominated by the likes of Dexys Midnight Runners and the Smiths, the band responsible for the best break-up songs, according to the film. The retro feel isn’t accidental. Even without the music, baby boomers and Gen Xers will fondly recall any number of director John Hughes’s character-driven ensemble dramadies, such as The Breakfast Club.
Narrator Charlie (a quietly appealing Logan Lerman) describes himself as the “weird kid who spent time in the hospital,” following a bout with depression after his best friend’s suicide. Completely without friends, he’s already counting the days until he graduates from his suburban Pittsburgh high school—1,385 to be exact. Like anywhere, the cafeteria represents the social pecking order, and no one wants the reticent Charlie at their table—not even his older sister who only hangs out with fellow seniors. His luck changes when he takes charge and sits next to a class clown at a football game, the openly gay Patrick (a tad over-the-top Ezra Miller), and finally finds a friend. He’s then initiated into the world of hip and brainy outsiders, who call themselves the “island of misfit toys,” which includes Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). However, hormones get in the way of their friendship when Charlie falls for her, though she’s dating a college boy, and, still feeling emotionally raw, Charlie’s just a breakdown away from more treatment.
Part of the film’s appeal lies is its timelessness. It could’ve taken place anytime in the last 30 years as long as some theater somewhere still has a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or there are eccentric teens that feel like they don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd. The dialogue occasionally drops pop culture references, but the wardrobe and hairstyles aren’t too specific—there’s no big hair, shoulder pads, or acid wash anywhere.
For the most part, the debut director stays out of his cast’s way and manages to showcase his young actors, whose camaraderie is effortless. The tone’s edgy and frank enough for a PG-13 rating without downplaying the book’s harder, sexual edge—it’s not more candid than, say, Glee. Chbosky transfers huge chucks of dialogue from page to screen almost verbatim so that his characters, though familiar, become multidimensional and transcend stereotypes and the hot-button issues, such as homophobia and physical abuse.
Taking on a character like Sam is a smart career choice for Watson, who has loosened up considerably since her days as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, where she often appeared bored. Here, any physical awkwardness on her part works for her character, a brainy senior and former bad girl. Watson’s a different sort of movie star, in the mold of another British fashion plate, Twiggy (though not as androgynous), plus her American accent is spot-on. This would be an attention-getting role if she wasn’t already a household name.
Adapted and Directed by Stephen Chbosky