Stephen Chbosky’s YA novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written in the epistolary form, unfolding as a series of letters written by its socially retarded high school freshman hero to a never-revealed source. The film version, adapted and directed by Chbosky himself, isn’t so radical. The action has been reformatted into a traditional narrative, the prose converted to traditional voiceover. The result only makes what follows feel like a generic coming-of-age saga, complete with another genre mainstay: a boring, tabula rasa protagonist whom we’re repeatedly assured will age into a brilliant writer.
However much of this smoothed-out Perks is unique at all is due to its time setting. The outsider teens of the early 1990s have had few, if any, cinematic offerings to call their own, and Perks revels in a dead era of mixtapes, of seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show live, of swooning to David Bowie’s “Heroes” on the radio, but not knowing what it was until months later. (Despite being an ‘80s teen himself, Chbosky sets the tale early in the next decade, and the mash of eras means everyone listens to the Smiths or L7.) Logan Lerman, who’s 20, plays the 13ish lead Charlie, a hopelessly stunted kid who enters high school expecting daily beatings. Instead, he lucks his way into a circle of misfit seniors led by Sam (Emma Watson) and her flamboyantly swishy stepbrother, Patrick (Ezra Miller).
What follows is conventional but, thanks to the period, a slight twist. Charlie scores an inspirational teacher in Paul Rudd, slowly accrues confidence and learns to stand up to mean jock bullies. But he also only scores platonic love, save an amusing comic stretch where he winds up in a relationship with a goth girl (Mae Whitman) whom he’s not into, only because he’s too nice to say no. The life of the suburban teen will likely never be immune to the same batch of cliches, and while it’s easy to dwell on Perks' shortcomings—most glaringly, a rushed subplot involving child abuse—it’s also easy to recognize the things it does just right, starting with Watson, perfectly cast as the unobtainable, older dream girl.