The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written and directed by Stephen Chbosky and based on Chbosky’s own novel, is one of the best teen movies of the 2010s.
Set in the early 1990s, the film is very specific to that time period, and as someone who was that exact age at that exact time, the film always felt true to me. This is a film with an acute understanding of the types of high school groups who went to midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1992.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 and then reached theaters the following week, 10 years ago last week. When it comes to romantic movies about mental illness that came out in the fall of 2012 and were set in Pennsylvania, Perks is a way, way better movie than Silver Linings Playbook.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a depressed kid fresh out of a mental institution who dreads starting high school. Once he does, he soon falls into a new group of friends, led by artsy step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). He’s highly smitten with Sam and finds a true friend in Patrick, the sort of unique queer character who really stood out in the cinema of the time.
Charlie gets into a relationship he doesn’t want with a member of the clique (Mae Whitman) while continuing to pine for Sam, although their relationship is a lot more complicated than one would expect.
Throughout, Charlie is haunted by visions of his late aunt (Melanie Lynskey). We’re meant to wonder where this is going, and the conclusion is absolutely jarring, in part because Lynskey is almost always such a likable, reassuring presence and here she’s, well, the exact opposite.
Lerman gives an understated but fine performance in the film, and Watson shone in her first major role outside of the Harry Potter franchise.
But the true breakout was Ezra Miller. Miller, these days, is often in the news for very horrific reasons and has turned out to be, it appears not the best person. But Miller, between Perks and We Need to Talk About Kevin the year before, showed incredible promise in the early part of their career.
The cast was also full of familiar faces, including Nina Dobrev as Charlie’s sister, Nicolas “Cousin Greg” Braun as the sister’s boyfriend, and future Anna Delvey, Julia Garner as a classmate.
Shot in Pittsburgh at the time when that was the hip film location, it used that location better than most of its contemporaries did, especially in a famous moment in one of the city’s tunnels (in that scene, the plot leans heavily on, in a pre-Shazam world, the characters not recognizing David Bowie’s “Heroes”):
In a movie released about a year after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, all the references to Penn State and its football team were pretty jarring, especially in a movie that also dealt with child sexual abuse.
Chbosky’s next movie as a director was 2017’s heartwarming Wonder, and then he came back four years later with the misbegotten movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, one is almost utterly undone by the casting of a too-old Ben Platt in the title role. But I prefer to look back on the director’s much better high school movie.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is streaming on both HBO Max and Paramount+.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.