Writer-director Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, might just as aptly be titled The Pains of Being a Wallflower. This fable of early-'90s high school recounts (if it usually doesn't show) abundant trauma — including suicide, child sexual abuse, psychotic blackouts and a gay boy who's bashed by his own father.
Looking back on all this, however, Chbosky emphasizes the pleasures of friendship and the wisdom gained from adolescent misery. The result is sweet and lively, boosted by a score heavy on such '70s and '80s Brit-pop mavericks as David Bowie and The Smiths. Yet all this energy and likability can't sustain the movie's second half, which tries to present wish-fulfillment fantasies as realistic developments.
Charlie (Percy Jackson and the Olympians' Logan Lerman) is about to enter a Pittsburgh-area high school, after having survived a rough year whose woes will gradually be revealed. His parents (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) don't seem very concerned, and his older siblings — including a sister who attends the same school — are also of little help.
Charlie confides his thoughts and troubles in letters to a friend, but that person seems to be imaginary (or perhaps dead). It appears that the boy's only real-life ally will be his English teacher (Paul Rudd), who supplies his promising student with the usual coming-of-age novels.
Then Charlie lucks into a friendship with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior who's taking freshman shop for what may be the fourth time. Through this connection, Charlie meets Sam (Emma Watson), who's caring and exuberant, if a veteran of reputation-blackening sexual experiments in her wayward years. Charlie initially assumes the two are a couple, but in fact Patrick is gay, and Sam is his genetically unrelated stepsister.
"Welcome to the island of misfit toys," Sam invitingly tells Charlie. Eventually, it becomes clear that the two have something in common. But that something is way too dramatic for a movie that in spirit is closer to Pretty in Pink than Cries and Whispers.
Adopted by the older kids, Charlie assists them with their problems: SATs, college applications and difficult romances, notably Patrick's with a closeted football player. In turn, the seniors introduce their new protege to drugs, hip music and role-playing at the weekly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Here's where the movie's title begins to seem a little off. The wallflower finds himself a fill-in member of the Rocky Horror troupe, performing nearly naked in front of a full house. For all his awkwardness, Charlie reveals a very un-14-year-old gift for saying brave, articulate things at exactly the right moment. He even ends up acquitting himself well in a brawl with older, bigger boys. The misfit toy is just too much the hero for a story set in high school.
Adequately directed by Chbosky, the movie relies heavily on music and the appeal of its too-old-for-high-school cast. Miller, who played a much more troubled kid in We Need to Talk About Kevin, is impressive. And Watson, Harry Potter's former helpmate, is the heart-melting apotheosis of the pretty senior girl who nurtures gawky freshman boys.
Anthropologists have yet to determine, of course, that such a creature exists. That's the problem with The Perks of Being a Wallflower: It's populated by characters who are just too good to be plausible.