A coming-of-age story that feels genuine

10/12/2012 7:59 AM

10/12/2012 8:00 AM

“The 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, a 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.

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. 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 special effects 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.

But 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.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has an honest, unsentimental feel, which gets stretched a bit in the revelatory finale, but by then you won’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 OK.

There is always the chance, as Charlie declares, of being infinite.

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