Saturday, 22 December 2012

Growing Up…

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: directed and written by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the second feature of Stephen Chhbosky’s directorial career. Based on his own novel the film unfolds with a sense of sweetness preciousness even, which confirms his potent adoration for the story he’s crafting. This is significant because somewhere along the line it’s possible observe a significant wave of nostalgia looming over the mood of the film. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, like many things which emanate from that nostalgia compartment is a simple tale in the past which could be about as basic as possible, but for the way it’s told…

I mentioned in my pseudo-review of Lawless that despite adding nothing indelibly new to the conversation on bootleggers, brotherhood or romance I still found the film generally lovely to watch. In the same way that Lawless is ultimately enjoyable despite lacking any potent sense of novelty, I think it’s only fair that I point out that the perfectly charming The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not an especially ground-breaking film in its own right, either. In fact, I’m rather certain that if I were to pitch a treatment of the film it might roll off the page as something not quite banal but certainly….well, trodden. I include this preamble because it’s a continuation of an ever burgeoning issue with film criticism. (It’s not probably less than an “issue” and more of a “node”, but I digress.) I was mentioning in my Holy Motors / Frankenweenie conversation how the elements of film unfold thus that you can never truly put your finger on why a film manages to work where it seems it shouldn’t…?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower occurs at some time in the 90s and high-school freshman Charlie is heading off to his first day at high school. Charlie is of that ilk of young, sensitive boys who aspires to be a writer, has a love for literature and has personal tragedies within him that would be responsible for much more angst if he wasn’t such a convivial fellow. The generally warm, but shy, Charlie through happenstance insinuates himself into the company of Patrick and Sam – two seniors with personalities much larger than his, and over the forthcoming year which the film traces they become responsible, somewhat, for his movement from wallflower to…not.
I hope that doesn’t read as (too) lazily flip a plot description, but in retrospect I’m taken aback by how especially prosaic the framework of the film’s plot. Stephen Chbosky adapts (and directs) his own novel and it’s important to point out that structurally The Perks of Being a Wallflower veers dangerously close to the trite and yet, despite the barest bones, it turns out being one of the more effective screenplays of the years. Do I sound paradoxical? Probably. I mentioned while writing about Lawless that’s there’s been a significant use of voice-over this year in films, and Perks employs the device in what could easily turn into something problematic considering that the voice-over emanates from un-mailed letters to an unnamed someone Charlie writes to. That Chbosky manages to dovetail this into a legitimately sensitive coming-of-age spectacle that never once descends into the treacly (okay, I’ll admit that closing monologue almost, almost, threatens to) is all the more impressive. Even more impressive is that the deus-ex-machina when it comes doesn’t make the film implode on itself but unfolds as natural tributary, for all its “unexpectedness”.

If on his own Chbosky manages to turn something well-trodden into something so full of charisma, then he’s indomitably beholden to his cast of performers who turn the endeavour from something merely appealing to something legitimately charismatic. Case-in-point – the hopelessly regular Charlie should not make for such a fascinating screen character but in Lerman Chbosky has found just the right performer to be the anchor to this fantasy-drama. He’s unassuming, but effective enough so that his polemic opposite Patrick (a very on-point Ezra Miller) is able to be as brazenly gargantuan in his antics without making the dynamic the two share lopsided. True, Emma Watson as the third of the trio fares less well both because Miller and Lerman seem to have more actorly chemistry than they do with her, and because – to some extent – Sam comes off the worse in terms of characters to care for. But, it’s an incredibly small gripe if her problem is that she’s good but not great. Further, despite Lerman’s definitive lead-status the film is so especially ensemble-focused that name-checking the strong and not so strong links seem gauche (even so, major shoutout to Mae Whitman’s crabby Buddhist who if not turning in the film’s best performance is at least making the absolute most of everything thrown at her).

Considering that the criticism of its potentially trite framework doesn’t count as a legitimate fault, a potentially knotty point for Perks is the suspension of belief essential in believing that this is a tale of a high-school coming of age. It moves from the superficial issues of Lerman seeming neither visually, or mentally, younger than the seniors he tags along with and becomes almost anachronistic in moments when the issues faced seem decidedly more collegiate than high-school eseque. It could very well be explained away by noting that the film is almost definitely not a manifestation of historical social realism and almost certainly an emanation of some form of writerly nostalgia. But, from Whitman’s playfully malevolent Buddhist to the almost-hipster parties they attend, the film’s tone seems especially post-high school to the point where I wonder if Chbosky is deliberately being farcical . A minor quibble within the grander scheme of things but one which threatened to unseat my investment when at the end I remembered, Charlie is only 15? But, by then, I’m already too swept away in the sweet charm of it all to truly care.

 (Disclaimer: I put this down for a week after writing and it reads with a particularly crabby tone. So, apologies. I did really like this one, tone be damned.)

Lovely / B+

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