When popular books are adapted and made into movies, issues frequently arise between what audiences perceive on the page versus what ends up on the screen. It's not uncommon to hear discussions regarding little details or seemingly important moments that fans wish had been included. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is in rare company when it comes to these type of adaptations. Stephen Chbosky, the author of the original 1999 novel, also happens to be screenwriter and director of the film adaptation. At the very least then, the screen version would be an accurate representation of the author's vision.
The book is set up as a series of letters from Charlie, an introverted young teenager about to enter high school, to an anonymous pen-pal. While the film version does bookend itself with this approach, and sprinkles it in a little along the way, the bulk of the story follows a more straight forward, first person narrative. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has always struggled to fit in at school and high school begins with more of the same.
Charlie is literally counting the days until graduation before high school even begins. After a rough start, he happens into a relationship with step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), and their group of self-described "misfit toys." While Patrick and Sam might initially befriend Charlie a bit out of pity, the group develops a strong bond based on a mutual search for identity, solace, and acceptance at a particularly tumultuous period of their lives.
Perhaps this all sounds familiar, and there are certain scenes that reflect the typical classroom, hallway, and cafeteria bullying that is all too common in real life, and that you've seen depicted countless times before. But where Perks varies and ultimately succeeds is that this isn't the same story of a group of kids who become friends because they have no other friends. These are kids dealing with serious, often tragic issues including suicide, mental illness, past/present physical and sexual abuse, and homosexuality at a time when society was far less accepting then it even is now.
Most adults would struggle to cope. Charlie's parents (played by Kate Walsh and an amusing Dylan McDermott) for instance, only partly aware of the things their son has been through, find it difficult to even strike up a conversation with him.
They relate and understand one another, even if pasts aren't always explicitly discussed. On a healthier, more normal level, the group participate in live theater versions of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and swap mix-tapes of their favorite songs by musicians ranging from Sonic Youth to The Smiths to Nick Drake. The soundtrack is indispensable, incorporating itself into many of the film's most important and memorable moments. The song choice often makes the scene, the standout of which is a brilliant use of David Bowie's "Heroes" that induces chills (I loved this moment, as I had a somewhat similar reaction the first time I truly heard Bowie's "Life on Mars?").
In order for audiences to buy into what Chbosky is selling, the actors need to be convincing. Fortunately, this is no problem for Miller, Watson, or Lerman, all of whom are quite good. Miller is the clear standout, but that's not much of a surprise (his performance less than a year ago as a sociopath turned mass murderer in We Need to Talk About Kevin was legitimately frightening). Miller's Patrick is perhaps the one member of the group who truly knows who he is - the problem is not everyone is as accepting as his friends are.
As the girl any high schooler would be hard-pressed not to fall for, Watson proves the ability to move past what could very well have been a career long Harry Potter stigma. And to his credit, Lerman actually gets stronger as the film progresses into more difficult territory.
There's definitely a personal element that comes through in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky has admitted adding aspects of his own youth into his novel, although I can't speak to what is real and what isn't. Regardless, Perks is as uplifting as it is devastating thanks to the honest and heartfelt friendship at its core.