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 He's 15, sensitive, and so withdrawn that he retreats into the furniture.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.
In shop class, he enjoys the antics of Patrick (Ezra Miller), the ink-haired and wild-eyed senior to whom Charlie is drawn like iron filing to magnet. Soon, he's hanging out with Patrick and his stepsister, Sam (Watson), included in their "island of broken toys" the way one suspects he never was with his own siblings. His feelings for Sam, it should be said, are not fraternal.
As a director, Chbosky mirrors his central character's emotional state. When Charlie is distant, the camera remains far from the fray, fly on wall. As he becomes more engaged, the camera draws closer to him and his friends, creating real intimacy between viewer and characters.
Unlike most films about teenagers, the performances are happy-sad-realistic. Lerman, who plays the least expressive of the three principals, does a fine job at suggesting the active inner life of an externally inexpressive youth. Miller, so creepy in We Need to Talk About Kevin, is warm and relatable as the openly gay student at a school where many are closeted. Watson, liberated from playing Harry Potter's Hermione, always two steps ahead of everyone else, is radiantly ordinary - and touching.