If you want something done right, do it yourself. Stephen Chbosky, an author with Hollywood experience under his belt, has decided to adapt and direct his own 1999 young-adult cult novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” More important, somebody has let him. And the resulting movie is very right indeed.
You’ve seen it all before, from Holden Caulfield to “The Breakfast Club” to “Degrassi High”: misfit teens in suburbia having wee existential crises, massive unrequited crushes, and emotions no one else has ever felt before. Which, when you’re 15, no one else has. But “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” finds an unexpectedly moving freshness in the old clichés by remaining attentive to the nuances of what happens within and between unhappy teenagers. Chbosky understands how the wrong word or the right pop song can upend one’s existence for what seems like forever (or at least until the next day). Above all, he has a faith in people — in the ways they can save each other even as they sabotage themselves.
Like the book, the movie takes its shape from the letters the young hero, Charlie (Logan Lerman), writes to an unknown recipient; like the book, it piles a little too much misfortune on his bony shoulders. As he begins his freshman year in high school, Charlie already has in his past a best friend’s suicide, the death of a troubled aunt (Melanie Lynskey) in a car crash, and a bout with depression. He’s smart, sensitive, and not quite present in his own life.
This makes him an ideal sounding board and/or mascot for the school’s artsy fringe, a group of seniors led by Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). They introduce him to the Smiths, mix tapes, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” as well as to various pharmaceutical pleasures and risks. The time period is hazy, maybe the mid-1990s, and while the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll may shock a few parents in the audience, their kids (and possibly the kids inside them) will recognize the portrayal as honest and true. One of the benefits of Chbosky steering this project himself is that he has only slightly softened his book’s frankness for multiplex consumption.
Patrick is gay and doesn’t much care who knows it, although his romance with the school’s football star (Johnny Simmons) has to remain furtive. Sam is a former bad girl trying hard to reinvent herself before college; she’s aware of Charlie’s instant crush on her and treats it with the tenderness it deserves. The buzz around “Perks” has mostly centered on Watson’s first major post-“Potter” acting role, and her performance has a hesitancy to it that works for the character. Neither she nor Sam are certain of who they are just yet.
The movie isn’t strong on plot, and Chbosky has a long way to go as a visual stylist: “Perks” is straightforwardly shot to the point of drabness. But his actors respond to the inclusiveness of his ideas about people, with Lerman somehow managing to make us care about a lead character who’s at times frustratingly passive. The group treats Charlie as their little Buddha, but the actor lets us glimpse the bewildering emotions that render him not serene but paralyzed.
And how good it is to see supporting characters that aren’t idiot cartoons. Charlie’s older sister (Nina Dobrev) isn’t an OMG mall brat but a complex young woman with problems of her own; Dad (Dylan McDermott) is terse, honorable, and concerned rather than a dummy. Miller’s Patrick isn’t a compendium of “Afterschool Special” gay-teen signifiers but a likable, believable mess. An English teacher is played by Paul Rudd with very quiet sympathy. Pleasing as it can be, there’s little of the glibness of a John Hughes movie to be found here. While staying within the expectations of a mainstream genre, Chbosky means business.
Occasionally too much so. A climactic revelation feels like overkill even as it explains Charlie’s distance from the world. The soundtrack’s impeccable playlist of ’80s indie-rock classics seems more the choice of a writer in his early 40s than teenagers in the 1990s. But the film’s primary mission sustains it: To show how loneliness can find its way into companionship, and to acknowledge that we rise above adolescent despair by surviving it together. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has a quality almost unheard of in American movies. It’s kind.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.