At the very end of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own 1999 young-adult novel, would-be wallflower Charlie (Logan Lerman) utters a few lines that seem to act in defense of the flavorless stew of earnest high school melodrama that’s led up to that point. An acid trip on a winter’s night, familial molestation and rape, furious lust and repressed love, pot brownies and Rocky Horror sing-alongs, abuse and betrayal—these things, the film’s protagonist assures us, do happen and do matter.
Which is to say that Chbosky himself wants us to know that these things do happen and do matter, and he does so in the most condescending of pseudo-jubilant tones, both visually and verbally. As Chbosky suggests by the end of Charlie’s heavy-handed voiceover, we must ensure that age doesn’t render these moments of exploration, pain, and joy completely moot. It’s impassioned, heart-on-sleeve rhetoric, but it remains, chiefly, rhetoric—spewed, screamed, and sobbed endlessly by a cast of talented young actors who may or may not have grown up with Chbosky’s novel. And Chbosky never finds the pulse of life in his characters to allow these moments to resonate; everything they say or do is in service to clunky affirmations, the paper-thin plot, or, yes, that certain, odious brand of liberalism that favors and tends toward victimization.
Indeed, the film goes to great lengths to remind you how much of a victim Charlie is, before and certainly after he becomes close with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a flamboyantly gay senior, and Patrick’s same-aged, Smiths-loving step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson). Along with punkish cinephile Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), klepto Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), and stoner Bob (Adam Hagenbuch), they form a sort of family of victims—and an earnestly alternative and largely dull family at that.
White and wealthy, sassy and self-serious, this family indulges in plenty of perceived fun, but Chbosky never fully communicates the joy of these experiences and certainly doesn’t stress them as prominently as the psychological lacerations endured by these teens in the past and present. It would have been enough, for instance, to show Charlie’s stoned request for a milkshake in its simple, joyful everydayness, but this seemingly minor fancy, like so many more actions in the film, must lead back to some stifling grimness, in this case to Charlie’s admission of a friend’s suicide, and Sam’s own feelings of shame and dour sympathy for him. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is nostalgic, but only in so much as nostalgia provides an optimum, open landscape for manipulation through reminiscences of a time of essential discovery, both of one’s self and the mysteries of social and sexual interaction.
It’s this type of philosophy that curdles what might have been just a frivolous trifle into a risible, somewhat revolting piece of pop martyrdom, made for and isolated to the damaged middle class. At one point, Sam assures Charlie that things are much better in college, but Chbosky seems only marginally interested in how things get better, let alone why, and as much as he stresses that these terrible things actually happen, his boldly cheesy script suggests a fantasia of concurrent self-pity and self-aggrandizement, set to a vaguely hip soundtrack and punctuated by vaguely cerebral novels given to Charlie by his English teacher (Paul Rudd).
There is, to an extent, a sense of excitement in the dialogue that Chbosky has provided, about the future, art, love, lasting friendships, drugs, and, yes, sex. And if Chbosky, as a director, had brought some of that excitement to his visual schemes, to the rhythm of the editing and the trajectory of the script, there might have been something to this ordeal. As it stands, however, his lack of personal artistry and aesthetic joy makes it hard to believe Sam’s assertion that things “get better.”