Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an instant hit with teen readers when it was released in 1999. The touching, tender story about Charlie, a troubled, awkward high school freshman who's befriended by a couple of off-beat seniors, the book has now become a movie which Chbosky both wrote and directed.
As it's being released across the country (it's in Houston September 28 and hits other cities on October 5), the critics are giving the film somewhat mixed reviews. The L.A. Times called it "a smart standout." The New York Times called it "unsurprising and principally a showcase for the pretty young cast..." But the only opinions that matter to writer/director Chbosky are the ones of the film's teenage viewers.
"My hope is that if kids feel alone in the world, they can go to this movie and realize that so many emotions that they're feeling, other people have them, too," Chbosky tells us."They're not as alone, they're not as different as they think. When we were at the Toronto Film Festival and we were showing the film in front of 1,200 people, there was an amazing sense of community in that theater. For some kids, that may be the only sense of community, of commonality and acceptance, that they'll feel. "
Chbosky says he has a sense of responsibility toward his young viewers. "I wrote the book for very personal reasons and I wrote it in a vacuum. Nobody knew anything about me. I didn't have a reputation to uphold. But by the time we got to the movie, I knew that because the kids loved the books so much, that I could not let them down."
To that end, Chbosky has been rather cryptic about the degree to which the story is autobiographical. "In terms of what I went through or didn't go through, I don't go into specifics about those. Some of the things that Charlie and his friends went through, I went through. Some things, I didn't. Some were stories I had heard from other people. Some things I had to make up. I feel like if there's some kid in Houston who's really up against it, he'll go to this movie and see all the things these characters go through and feel a lot of solidarity, feel a deep connection to them. If I concentrate on what part of this story is mine, I'm dropping the ball on what part of it is theirs.
"I'm 42 and happily married and I have a beautiful daughter. My life is as happy as it can be and so my focus is on them, on those kids who are still going through what Charlie or Sam went through, who are going through what Patrick went through."
It took more than ten years to bring the story to the screen. The central role of Charlie is played by Logan Lerman (The Three Musketeers), while the roles of his two new best friends, Sam and Patrick, are played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter series) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk about Kevin) respectively. Chbosky says it's his dream cast. "I've been asked why I waited so long after the book to make the movie, and the truth is that I think it was just meant to be now. If I had made it five years ago, or five years from now, it would not be this cast and they've made all the difference."
Lerman perfectly captures the essence of Charlie in his performance. In his hands, Charlie is intelligent, sensitive and haunted by the suicide of his best friend and unexpected death of his aunt. Surprisingly, Chbosky had first thought of him for the role of Patrick, an outlandish and wild gay boy who's having a secret relationship with the school's football star. "In real life, Logan's a very confident young man, so I thought he would be great for Patrick, but he asked if he could audition for Charlie. I always want to let an actor follow his passion, so I said, 'Of course.' Then he brought in this audition, and within five seconds I knew he was Charlie. It was incredible, the transformation he went through."
Chbosky says Watson was an easy choice as the pretty senior girl that Charlie falls in love with, and Patrick's equally wild stepsister. "I saw her in Goblet of Fire. She has a wonderful scene with Daniel Radcliffe in front of this staircase, and she's crying at the school dance. And she just broke my heart in that scene. We all saw it watching those films, with every movie she just got better and better. That impressed me. Then when I met her in New York, I knew I had found Sam."
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As the confident, witty and openly gay Patrick, Ezra Miller could have stolen every scene he was in, but didn't. "Ezra is a force of nature," laughs Chbosky. "The great thing about Ezra is that he is as wild and unpredictable as Patrick, but unlike some wild, young actors, he actually likes to listen and take direction and be collaborative. It's not just the Ezra show. He was very generous to his castmates and that made a big difference. His warmth is what makes that character work for me."
One of the criticisms about the film has been its slow reveal about a life-changing event in Charlie's past; it comes very near the end of the film. Chbosky says he purposefully choose to spend the first half of the movie unveiling the characters rather than moving the action forward. "I knew I had so many characters to introduce and that was the priority. I wasn't worried about plot so much as I was worried about letting the relationships between the characters develop. I think the patience paid off."
So, apparently, do thousands of teens across the country.
For more information about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, visit the film's website.