Observe the white, middle-class American Catholic teenager in his natural habitat: the suburbs. This week, on Mutual of Omaha's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, novelist Stephen Chbosky directs a revealing nature film based on his own semi-autobiographical book. Or, as the white, middle-class American Catholic teenager plaintively bleats, "My life is officially an After School Special."
Witness specimen Charlie (Logan Lerman)—seen here entering, for the first time, the mating grounds of Mill Grove High School outside Pittsburgh in the early nineties—little understanding the inexorable instinctual pull that will lead him to join a pack, gravitate to his cool English teacher, fall for an unavailable female of the species, make mixtapes, have late-night "deep thought" epiphanies like "I feel infinite," and participate in ancient teenage rituals involving drugs, alcohol, and/or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
For nature is so often pitiless and cruel, one important reason for the proliferation in the wild of Morrissey songs. The young cub marked by the pack as a "high school freshman" struggles for acceptance. Under the best of circumstances, it is one of nature's most daunting and magnificent struggles, like the salmon swimming upstream, but poor Charlie is painfully shy, highly sensitive to the pain in everyone around him, and instinctively inclined to lick the wounds of earlier tangles with predators.
If only we could understand what he was thinking (if only, say, he would write letters, on his typewriter, that could serve as narrative commentary), perhaps we could more fully understand the impulses that make him so fragile. Yes, nature is cruel, but it also finds a way. Showing great courage, little Charlie tentatively moseys onto the dance floor, accessing from the collective unconscious the ancient rhythms of "Come On Eileen."
And thus, he is accepted by the impulsive seniors of the pack: attractive potential mate Sam (Emma Watson) and homosexual Patrick (Ezra Miller), the latter performing that rare and complex dance of flamboyance, deception, confusion, fear and desire like a junior Oscar Wilde who has unfortunately wandered into the hostile climes of Mill Grove. Sam has imprinted upon a "bad boy," but she recognizes a fellow survivor in the cub and, with Patrick, gives Charlie enough attention and purpose to survive.
See how Charlie nuzzles under the wings of the older teenagers; hear the cry of the female ("It gets better") and of the English teacher ("We accept the love we think we deserve"). Music takes on great importance and prominence in these years of development, and it is the soundtrack of so many slow mating dances, most of which are never consummated, until the teenager reaches maturity. Here, truly, is the best and worst of being young, the thrill of puberty and the agony of the feet.
One cannot blame our sentimental filmmaker or even you, gentle viewer, for seeing in these younglings something of ourselves. Though we have, perhaps, never flaunted the fetching eyelashes and perfect skin of these curious creatures, these magnificent specimens, have we not, in a sense, been there? Have we not learned, the hard way, to participate in life, to accept ourselves and set aside shame and guilt? Perhaps we are not so different from these noble creatures after all.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Summit's Blu-ray + Digital Copy + Ultraviolet special edition of The Perks of Being a Wallflower comes with an HD transfer that gives a grainy, murky impression. That said, I recall the picture giving a somewhat grainy, murky impression when I saw it on the big screen, so that probably owes to Chbosky's preference for dim, hazy lighting schemes and his evocation of a pre-hi-def era. At any rate, the Blu-ray certainly yields more detail than standard-def DVD, and occasional snap under more light, but as a rule, expect hazy contrast and a pervading softness. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix gives a stronger impression by handily recreating the ambience of high-school settings and nights out on the town; as one might expect, the nostalgic music gets a lovely, full-bodied treatment.
A nice complement of bonus features contextualize the film, beginning with an audio commentary with writer/director Stephen Chbosky. As he did on the promotion trail, Chbosky discusses his roots as a film student, how he approached the opportunity to adapt his own bestselling novel, his deep gratitude for screenwriting mentor Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause), and the story's autobiographical origins, among other topics. A second audio commentary with Chbosky, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons, Emma Watson, Mae Whitman and Erin Wilhelm gives voice to the young actors' experience making the film and, in a way, reliving their own high-school years, while also allowing Chbosky further opportunities to comment.
"Best Summer Ever" (5:00, HD) is a perfunctory, if not unwelcome, making-of featurette with cast and crew sound bites.
Also included are extended and "Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky" (23:11, HD), a rare sampling of raw "Dailies with Optional Commentary by Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky" (7:04, HD), and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:27, HD).
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