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The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. David Bowie’s 1977 hit Heroes was played pretty much to death during the London Olympics, so it raises a smile to hear it pass unrecognised in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Pittsburgh tunnel in a pick-up with Bowie blaring. They can be forgiven their ignorance, for not only are they teenagers, but the year is 1991, a time before mass mobile phones, music downloads and certainly before apps that can identify pop songs from just a few bars. This is a time when young people still write letters by hand, read real books and make compilation tapes for their love interests. Anyone sensing a coming-of-age film is absolutely right. Directed and adapted from his own book by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a classic American rite-of-passage film, covering little in the way of new ground, but covering the ground it does quite beautifully.
The highs and lows of teenage life are captured in a way that at times seems agonisingly palpable. One minute, you’re a boy closing your eyes and kissing the wrong girl too soon, the next you’re eagerly puckering up only to discover you’re kissing the right girl way too late. Charlie, as the film loses no time in telling us, is an unusual lad. A letter he is writing to an unspecified friend and which serves as an occasional narration alludes to a recently troubled past. There are hints of a period of mental illness, of some sort of breakdown, of a favourite aunt who no longer seems to be part of his life. But now Charlie is hoping that high school offers him the chance of a new start. He’s bright and academically engaged but he’s also shy, hopeless at making friends and unhappily accustomed to observing life from the sidelines.
There is no mistaking the wallflower of the title. They introduce him to a world of parties, girls and fun. Suddenly, Charlie is a boy with friends, eagerly facing up to a life of infinite possibilities. But, of course, this being a classic coming-of-age film, there’s no way he’s going to get there without the odd stumble along the way.
Chbosky is particularly good at evoking the ups of teenage life. He does a lovely job of capturing the heady atmosphere of that party-filled period around Christmas and New Year, when each gathering seems to offer the prospect of a life-changing event, and he draws terrific performances from his young actors. Lerman, whom some will recognise from Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief, puts in a commendably unshowy shift as Charlie, but it’s Watson and Miller who really catch the eye. As for Miller, seizing the opportunity to play the flamboyant Patrick, it’s difficult to believe that it’s the same young actor who played the sociopathic mass murderer in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Nevertheless, and despite television series such as Glee making this sort of thing far more familiar, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is beautifully made and worth catching. Josh Radnor’s new film feels very much like a companion piece to Wallflower, albeit one aimed primarily at an older audience and marking a hitherto rather less remarked-upon rite of passage: the moment when you finally realise you’re a grown-up.
Radnor, who is probably best recognised as the likeable Ted from American television’s How I Met Your Mother, and who stars here as well as writes and directs, plays Jesse, a bookish 35-year-old academic who has just split up with his girlfriend and is growing steadily disillusioned by the admissions role he fulfils at a New York university. History, just to make sure I was totally unemployable’. She wants him to stay in contact, not by email or text but with handwritten letters. It’s clear that Zibby doesn’t think Jesse is too old for her, but is Zibby too young for Jesse? After all, as he calculates, when he was 19 she was three. But, on the other hand, when he’s 50, she’ll be an almost respectable 34. Liberal Arts is sweet and, perhaps above all, a great advertisement for American higher education: more than once I found myself hoping there are still people like Jesse and Zibby coming out of British universities too.
Radnor and Olsen are good together, and watch out too for an amusing cameo from Zac Efron as a woolly-hatted campus mystic. But for all its undoubted qualities, its arty credentials eventually become a little gauche, its emotions somewhat over-done, and its supporting cast unnecessarily over-indulged. It’s still good, but less would definitely have delivered more. Taken was one of the surprise hits of 2008, with the adrenaline-soaked story of a retired CIA agent rescuing his kidnapped daughter virtually single-handed not only providing a richly deserved fillip for Liam Neeson’s career but cheering up middle-aged men everywhere. Incoming director Olivier Megaton certainly serves up the required amounts of menace and tension, along with chase sequences that suggest he has been influenced by the Bourne films and by his producer, Luc Besson, writer and producer of the similarly high-octane Taxi films.