When you're in high school, it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman), whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under ''Murphy's Law.'' Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety, Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later, he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging, but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s, Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals, mixtapes, and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting, a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique, so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths, of course!), Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion, blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair, which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug, Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection, but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth, another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller, riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick, a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain, but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else, the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book, and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy, shocking, and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.