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Review: 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' earns an A for unsentimental honesty

Published Oct. 4, 2012

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he Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in 1991, in a small town where high school culture is a John Hughes movie, with all the confusion, '80s music and hip ennui that implies. Everyone can't wait to get out, and no one more than Charlie, an introverted freshman counting down the days to graduation even before his first class.

Freshmen like Charlie typically lie low and stay lonely, dodging bullies and awkward lunges for friendship with seniors who are so much cooler. Charlie is different. He's a wallflower, one such senior says, and that's a compliment, an invitation for Charlie to join his clique, his "island of misfit toys."

Being a wallflower does indeed have its perks in Stephen Chbosky's movie, based on his semiautobiographical novel. Charlie will develop his first crush, catch his first buzz, and make his first decisions not dictated by what he's expected to do. Maturing also means confronting crippling personal issues and having illusions dashed, penalties for now and perks later in life.

Logan Lerman plays Charlie as an MTV generation Holden Caulfield, an observer mostly keeping thoughts to himself and passionately odd when expressing them. Lerman impressed before in middling movies (Hoot, Percy Jackson and the Olympians), but this nuanced performance is something special. He refuses to make Charlie pitiful when there's every right to be, yet adds uncertainty to each step forward. It feels genuine, like the rest of Chbosky's movie.

The catalysts for Charlie's growth are flashier, more confident, but that's a teenage facade essayed by two other bracing young stars.

Sam (Emma Watson) is the girl of his dreams, a seemingly carefree senior out of reach or maybe not. Free of Harry Potter's SFX distractions, Watson proves herself to be more than merely an ingenue. The camera loves her, but there's a distinctly un-Hermione edge to Sam, and Watson gamely plays it.

The showstopper here is Ezra Miller's portrayal of Sam's gay half brother Patrick, cloaking insecurity with the bonhomie of an adolescent Oscar Wilde. Patrick's secret affair with the school's star quarterback is his badge and burden; lip synching Dr. Frank N. Furter at Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings is his release. I didn't realize until later that Miller also played the disturbed son in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Talk about a bold acting range.

I adore The Perks of Being a Wallflower for its honest, unsentimental feel, which gets stretched a bit in the revelatory finale, but by then I didn't mind. This movie is filled with characters who learned how to be teenagers through The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, now discovering that life isn't always Molly Ringwald going to the prom and that's okay. There is always the chance, as Charlie declares, of being infinite.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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