“The Perks of Being A Wild Flower” can be summed up as a coming of age story. It deals with the ever so pivotal experience of high school, and all the ups and downs that come along with it. It centers on a group of students, at different stages of their high school careers (one is a freshman, the other four are seniors), trying to navigate their lives, having to deal with various obstacles. The movie may sound standard and may be in some ways, but the writer/director Stephen Chbosky captures the experience of high school in such a delicate, patient, bittersweet and genuine way. Everybody--current high schoolers and adults-- can find a way to connect to it.
The story is incredibly rich and multilayered, and the characters are some of the deepest most well rounded characters I have seen in a movie this whole year. The picture also evokes a sense of nostalgia. A time when people bought records and made mix tapes for one another, a time when RC Cola was drunk, a time before social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s this specific period texture that gives “Perks” a refreshing feel and Andrew Dunn’s warm and glowing cinematography gives the film a distinctive, old fashioned glamour look.
The main character is Charlie (a spot on Logan Lerman) an ideal hero for a coming of age story about high school. He’s intelligent but also socially awkward. He doesn’t fit in with the other freshman, and his older sister is a senior, therefore she doesn’t want to be seen with him at school. So he spends his lunch hour sitting alone, reading a book, looking for someone who might notice him. At home his parents, played by Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh, are nice and supportive but also distant and oblivious to Charlie’s issues.
Things start to get better when he bonds with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) who recognizes how smart he is, and he gives him extra books to read outside of the class. He also befriends two lively and intelligent seniors: Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who Charlie begins to fall in love with. In the movie, you can tell that Watson is trying hard to shake off her Herimone Granger character (she sports an American accent and enters the movie wearing a letterman’s jacket). She’s sweet and compassionate but has a wild, rambunctiousness to her as well. You’ll forget all about Herimone.
The five teenagers--there are also two other girls, a punk Buddhist and a Goth-- embark on a number of wacky adolescent adventures that should make anyone remember high school fondly. Going to football games on Friday nights, going to lame Homecoming dances, followed by after-parties, where you get stoned on weed brownies. Playing Secret Santa, reenacting “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” as it plays in a movie theater, and simply just driving around listening to and discussing music. All of these upbeat episodes are given such a personal touch, while watching it I felt alive and enthralled. They feel completely natural; the actors look like they’re really living these fun moments.
But then there are the down moments; it wouldn’t be high school without them. Just about all of the characters have some sort of baggage. Charlie is social outcast but we also find out that his best friend shot himself the summer after middle school and later on we discover something more horrifying about his past. We find out that Sam had a reputation for being a slut when she was a freshman, and even though she’s a lot more confident today, she still makes bad decisions when it comes to boyfriends. And Patrick, despite his happy go lucky attitude, is secretly gay and secretly dating the captain of the football team.
Cracks also start to form in their friendship. Charlie is smart and mature but he’s also young and naïve. He’s only known these people for a few months whereas Sam, Patrick and the others have known each other since they were in kindergarten. On accident, Charlie rattles some feathers one night during a game of Truth or Dare.
Despite all of this, and more, the film never descends into soap opera. Instead, Chbosky handles it with care and grace. He doesn’t hit you over the head with it, Michael Brook’s score doesn’t swell up, and Dunn doesn’t use any special camera tricks or effects in an attempt to amp up the drama and emotion. In other words “Perks” doesn’t try overly hard to be melodramatic. It comes naturally. More depth is added to the characters, more layers to the story are pealed back effortlessly.
And the humorous moments are still around; in fact the serious/emotional instants make you appreciate the humorous stuff even more, you understand the characters on an even deeper scale. These kids have major issues they’re trying to sort out, and so these fun, giddy episodes that they partake in are ways for them to heal themselves, take their minds off of their problems for a little while. Everything is better with companions, after all.
Patrick is particularly interesting case. For most of the movie he seems lively and enthusiastic about life. He and Charlie first meet in Freshman woodshop when Patrick imitates the teacher to make the freshman more comfortable. He’s cocky and arrogant, always has an answer. All the while—deep down—he is suffering. Miller—who was in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”—gives a memorizing performance, one containing both internalized and explosive power.
I think the main reason why “Perks” works so well is not the cinematography or the music or the acting -- although those things contribute quite a bit – but because of Chbosky. Chbosky wrote the original semi autobiographical novel of the same name, and he wrote the screenplay and directed it. He knows this material better than anyone. He knows these characters inside and out; they’re a part of him. Therefore he knows how to best execute the story to the very best ability.
If someone else had directed or written the screenplay the film might have been good but it wouldn’t be nearly as intimate and deep. Everything in “Perks” clicks, which is a rare thing to say about a movie these days.