Charlie—the hero of The Perks of Being a Wallflower—and I have a lot in common. We both went to high school in the early 90s, we both were bullied by boys and shy with girls, and we both were linguistically precocious and favored manual typewriters. The only differences between us were that, unlike me, Charlie was befriended by the most beautiful girl and the most charismatic boy in school; experimented with illegal drugs that made him the life of the party; and physically dominated bullies by drawing on reservoirs of dark strength he possessed as a result of childhood traumas.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the new film written and directed by Stephen Chbosky as an adaptation of his 1999 novel, presents adolescence as a time uniquely marked by transcendent highs and crippling lows. The lows suffered by Chbosky’s characters are lower than those endured by the average teenager, but the characters soar beyond them with such contrived effortlessness that the film goes beyond simply being bad: it’s offensive.
Charlie is played by Logan Lerman, looking cute and poised and—like every other character in this film—completely lacking acne. At the beginning of his freshman year of high school he’s pushed around by a few upperclassmen, but he handles the mistreatment with the stoic determination of a boy who hopes that soon he’ll be taken under the wing of a beautiful girl (Emma Watson) who considers herself an outsider because she has “a reputation” and whose best friend is her charming gay step-brother (Ezra Miller) who’s surreptitiously bedding the hottest jock in school. Stay gold, y’all.
His new friends are soon introducing Charlie to their supporting-character buddies and taking him to well-lit house parties that, despite the apparently wanton use of drugs and alcohol, make after-school soda stops at The Max look like wild bacchanals. “My life is now officially an after-school special,” declares one character, which is funny in an unintended way: in what after-school special is a near-death bad trip played for laughs, an abusive relationship shrugged off when it becomes inconvenient for the plot, a romantic betrayal discovered just in time to dump the dude before college, a closeted jock gracious to the nerd who steps up to defend his secret boyfriend from the jock’s buddies, and two teenage characters with deeply troubled sexual histories able to shrug them off so as to have a gentle and beautiful first night together?
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky’s strategy is to take a featherweight plot centering on an apparently unrequited crush and tether it to serious issues in a seeming attempt to lend gravity to the proceedings, but the scenarios are so hackneyed and contrived that the film feels less like a poignant memory than a shallow fairy tale shot in Hipstamatic. Even the college rock soundtrack makes no sense—these characters trade informed opinions on deep tracks by the Smiths and Galaxie 500 but take months to figure out who sung “Heroes”?
A lot of teenagers—and people who formerly were teenagers—will probably like this film because it looks pretty, sounds nice, and compliments them without challenging them. Compare The Perks of Being a Wallflower, though, to a film like The Breakfast Club. That movie is also about the travails of teenage life, but John Hughes’s characters are complex individuals who struggle with the stereotypes they find themselves cast into. Chbosky’s characters simply enact their stereotypes, and they have no reason not to. When being a wallflower comes with such wildly implausible perks, why do anything off the wall?