Among the social butterflies at high school, Charlie, a new freshman, is in caterpillar land. He's 15, sensitive, and so withdrawn that he retreats into the furniture. He has his reasons. Charlie's best friend recently committed suicide. That untimely death restimulates his grief for long-lost Aunt Helen. Inconveniently, his older brother, a football star as gregarious as Charlie is introverted, is off to college, leaving him without an emotional bodyguard during this fraught transition. Charlie's sister is a nonfactor.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, novelist Stephen Chbosky's remarkably involving adaptation of his own 1999 novel, follows Charlie through freshman year in high school. Over the course of the film, Charlie (played quietly by a watchful Logan Lerman) emerges from his chrysalis. He does so with the help of a sympathetic English teacher and some misfit seniors, the stepsiblings Patrick and Sam. In their company, Charlie finds his spiritual family - and his wings.
The Smiths' "Asleep" is on the soundtrack, there's the weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show ritual, and a girl named Sam (Emma Watson) wears those faux-strapless frocks held in place by plastic straps meant to be invisible. Yet this film, set in the Pittsburgh suburbs in the early 1990s, does not fetishize the music and clothing of its era. They are just part of the atmosphere, like mixtapes and diner food. The point of the story is that the stresses of adolescence are universal and timeless. And that sometimes it's easier for teenagers to share the music they respond to than the feelings that haunt them.
In Chbosky's epistolary novel, Charlie writes letters about his life to an unnamed person. In the movie, we hear those letters in Lerman's uninflected voice-over. He feels pressure from his family to participate instead of observe. So much easier to live vicariously by reading the books that Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), his English teacher, suggests.