If you don't go into The Perks of Being a Wallflower at least a bit skeptical, you're probably delusional. After all, most film dramas aimed at a teenage audience are either embarrassingly precious or totally wrapped up in their own smug cuteness. (Juno, perhaps the most acclaimed teen dramedy of the past decade, is an example of both.) But where Juno often felt like a promising script marred by its fumbling execution, Wallflower is the inverse: a slightly shaky, overly familiar premise given thematic depth and emotional resonance onscreen, a story that grows richer the longer the film winds on.
The initial exposition is so by-the-numbers, it often feels like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie or a pilot episode from a canceled CW drama. Charlie (Logan Lerman, who wowed audiences several years back in the Western 3:10 to Yuma) is an early '90s social outcast entering his freshman year at a Pittsburgh high school. His family, of course, is uncannily attractive. His parents (including a vacant Dylan McDermott) encourage their son to smile his way through his first day of high-school hell; instead, he gets called "faggot" and a dumb jock rips up his copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Charlie makes a connection with English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd, who apparently can't not be charming), but his first sign of an actual friend comes in shop class, when he feels a mysterious pull toward Patrick (the mesmerizing Ezra Miller), a flamboyantly gay senior who accidentally falls into the unfortunate nickname "Nothing."
So far, so snoozy. But the film finally takes flight when Patrick and his quirky stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, dropping the British accent in a definite break-out performance) invite Charlie, their shy prospective young friend, to a local house party—one full of weed brownies, booze, and a group of punkish semi-outcasts Patrick labels "the island of misfit toys." Baked out of his gourd, Charlie finally opens up, confessing to Sam about his best friend's recent suicide. These are teenagers, after all, so they deal with this heavy confession like any good band of movie teen outcasts: They take a midnight drive and crank up David Bowie's "Heroes" on the radio.
There's an inevitable will-they-or-won't-they romance between Charlie and Sam—one teased until the film's final stretches. And to the credit of Stephen Chbosky—who wrote the original 1999 novel and directed his own adapted screenplay—it's as genuinely touching as onscreen teen romances come. But what ultimately elevates Wallflower above a solid coming-of-age dramedy is its darker undercurrents. Nearly every character has some kind of emotional baggage: Charlie is plagued by guilt-fueled visions of his aunt's death when he was a child; Sam, as she reveals in a tender bedroom confession with Charlie, had her first kiss at age 11—as a victim of sexual abuse; and Patrick, in the film's most devastating subplot, is forced to hide his romance with closeted gay jock Brad (the solid Johnny Simmons), with violent consequences.
Chbosky juggles these various threads with skill, unfurling each storyline in such a relaxed, delicate manner that the film never feels cluttered. Yet Wallflower still feels cut short; it's a testament to the pitch-perfect cast that we care so much about each one of these misfits. At 102 minutes, it's hard not to wish for more of Patrick's tortured backstory, or more character development for Rudd's Mr. Anderson (who's mostly relegated to the sidelines for an inspirational pep-talk here and there), or more insight into Charlie's troubled relationship with his aunt. All told, Wallflower's robust script feels like a mini-series crammed into a film.
But all things considered, wanting to spend more time with the characters is a good problem to have. The actors never force their catharsis; for a film of such heavy subject matter, Wallflower is pleasantly void of tearful tirades, and the Big Moments (Patrick's ill-advised kiss with Charlie, Sam's late-film bedside confession) have an impact because of their subtlety. Meanwhile, the film's quirks feel genuine to the characters. When the gang swaps indie-rock mixtapes and dresses up for their own campy renditions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, we don't roll our eyes. For these kids, art and culture and sex and drugs are gateways to something more, and their longing is palpable.
Chbosky never flinches from his dark subject matter or gives his characters the easy way out, spiraling toward a dark, heady resolution that involves a destructive blackout and a gripping near-suicide. But Wallflower remains hopeful: We may not know what's ahead for these "misfit toys," but we can feel their passion for that unpredictable future, and we want better lives for all of them.