“Happy Days” used to make my mother crabby — it was a distinctly bittersweet experience to find the decade of her adolescence turned into a period piece. With that, I issue a warning to all of you who once rocked out to Jane´s Addiction, counted down the days until the new Kevin Costner movie and wore your clothes backward as a salute to Kris Kross: You are now in the same place as my poor mom 38 years ago. In "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," the early ‘90s become the dreaded good-old-days-that-weren´t-always-so-good. But no matter when you were a teenager, there is plenty in "Wallflower" that will speak to you.
Stephen Chbosky penned the screenplay and directed this rewarding adaptation of his own novel, which examines high school life in the post-John Hughes/Molly Ringwald world. With its beautiful balance between comedy and drama, "Wallflower" shrugs off the usual conventions of teen drama and plows into some prickly topics, echoing the much-loved mid-‘90s TV series "My So-Called Life."
Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman who seems to tiptoe through his suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood as if navigating a minefield, lives in the margins of the high school hierarchy, observing the major players but having no contact with them. However, he does not go unnoticed by seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), who are sharp-eyed enough to recognize a kindred spirit and smart enough to overlook the age difference.
In its gentle but insistent way, "Wallflower" reminds us that there can be an enormous gap between 14-year-olds and 17-year-olds in terms of life experience and social sophistication. Charlie reaches out to the important people in his life by making them mix tapes (ah, the days before everyone had a CD burner!), but Sam and Patrick have been around enough to know there are other, most personal ways to reach out.
Sam is a survivor of abusive relationships and self-destructive behaviors who turned her life around. Patrick, who is proudly gay and unrepentantly outspoken, has been carrying on a secret, uneasy affair with the macho football quarterback. Sam and Patrick share their secrets with Charlie — who also turns out to have a whopper of a secret — as they bring him out of the shadows and into the party scene. The movie acknowledges that even among close friends there are still boundaries: As Charlie moves from idolizing Sam to falling in love with her and Patrick starts pushing his own emotional envelope, the connections between them are jeopardized.
Chbosky´s directorial style isn’t particularly flashy, which serves the movie well. The utterly sincere performances of Lerman, Watson and Miller perfectly amplify the poignancy in the material so that no extra flourishes are needed. Paul Rudd, in a brief but wonderful bit as a sympathetic English teacher, and Melanie Lynskey, as Charlie´s offbeat aunt, provide sturdy backup.
What ultimately makes "Wallflower" irresistible, though, is the way in which it demonstrates that regardless of the clothes and hairstyles you wore, the cars you drove and the music you listened to, your life was pretty much the same as every young person who came before you and everyone who has followed. In every coming-of-age there is ecstasy, disappointment, surprise and, above all else, difficult lessons to learn. Including the knowledge that one day, the era of your youth will be considered ancient history.