Whatever happened to misbegotten youth?
Don’t you long for the old days, when young misfits were French, and ran everywhere, and stole things?
What happened to the old days, when a good American movie character could look forward to a life of crime on screen?
Nowadays they take medication. And moan about not being popular. And make mix tapes and try to get people to feel sorry for them.
Has American youth taken a turn for the dull? Meet Charlie (Logan Lerman), the depressed high-school freshman at the center of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” In order to spice him up, director Stephen Chbosky (adapting his own popular teen novel) stages a panty raid on over-the-top teenage dysfunction.
Would you like to count? Charlie 1) just got out of “the hospital” for an episode of depression after 2) his best friend killed himself over the summer. Going into his first days of high school, he’s 3) picked on by other students and 4) has no friends. In addition, Charlie is haunted by the memory of his 5) troubled aunt who 6) died in a car crash for which 7) Charlie blames himself. Meanwhile, he is also the holder of the family’s deep dark secret, so deep and so dark that it needs a third act twist to handle it. At some point you don’t have a black cloud. You are the black cloud!
After Charlie spends the first week in high-school getting rained on in the sunshine, this shy boy starts to make friends. There’s his English teacher (a dandy Paul Rudd) who encourages Charlie’s interest in writing. There’s Patrick (Ezra Miller, “We Need to Talk about Kevin”), an energetic gay quipster, and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). They’re the leaders of a clique of tragic teenage outcasts. Sam is so invigorating that she inspires our teenage Raymond Carver to write in short, dull, declarative sentences.
Making the leap away from “Harry Potter,” there are things to like about Emma Watson as an actress. She projects intelligence, for one thing, probably more than her character should have. But she is miscast as an object of life-injecting spontaneity. She tends to lead with her brain. When Chbosky gets to the movie’s signature moment—as Sam rises in the back of a pickup full-speed through a tunnel—it feels less like liberation than deliberation. Directing his novel thirteen years after release, it must be a thrill for Chbosky to finally see that moment make it this far.
The set-up isn’t unlike Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” with its characters balancing youth and introspection. I wish I could report that there were the same levels of wit and insight going on. But “Perks of Being a Wallflower” is content to reach the young audience that made Chbosky’s book such a hit. This is what a fifteen-year-old sounds like on the inside.
So is it wrong of me to dream of a day when young movie rebels turn back to a life of crime? To hope that one day our movie misfits won’t be sad little Harry Potters waiting on their Emma Watsons? If you’re going to be dysfunctional youth, could you at least be cinematic about it?