It is immensely difficult to make a film about adolescence that feels, in story and language, authentic. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is such a movie — winsome, emotive, the narrative fearless. It resonates and never feels like a cliché.
Perhaps it's true that there is no time in our lives when we live as intensely as we do during adolescence. Those memories of our youth remain indelible, some raw still, a pastiche of confusion and angst and a search for peer affirmation.
"Perks" opens with Charlie sitting in his room, the day before he is scheduled to begin his first day of high school. He is writing to a hypothetical friend, sharing his deep-seated apprehensions, the voiceover gentle and epistolary in tone. He anticipates being completely alone, the quintessential wallflower, ignored at best. And yet he yearns for so much more.
What could have been an all-too-familiar trope about a nerdy kid coping with his first days of high school — life in the halls before class, a football game he attends alone, being harassed by jocks, surcease found in an English class — soon evolves into something far more complex. "Perks" risks exploring not only the importance of friendship in the context of isolation, but examines young love, drug use, sexual abuse, bullying and adolescent sexuality (more specifically homophobia). In other words, it strives to examine those cul-de-sacs of adolescence that define vulnerability and uncertainty and unabashed joy.
Charlie, it soon becomes evident, has a past that still haunts him, personal issues that are hidden beneath layers of denial and trauma. His best friend, he discloses, recently committed suicide. Serendipitously, he is rescued from high school obscurity, and its attendant pain, by two somewhat eccentric seniors — Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). They are not mainstream jock-social-student government kids; instead, they exist, with their cohorts, on what they call, with some gleeful resignation, the "island of misfit toys."
Charlie decides he fits nicely with this group and cannot resist the eminently crushable and charming Sam. He has found a place and it makes all the difference.
While "Perks" does have an aspect of the teenage confessional, it is also embedded with truths that transcend adolescent rebellion and those familiar rites of passage so often fashioned from a standard Hollywood template.
"Perks" is based on the 1999 young adult novel written by Stephen Chbosky, who, as it turns out, also directs. His film clearly transcends those suspend-your-disbelief teen flicks, examples being "The Hunger Games" and the "Twilight" franchises. What he constructs instead is a character-driven film, intimate and personal. "Perks" finds the adolescent sweet spot and expands on it.
The trailer for "Flight" shows a commuter airliner in obvious distress, some 500 feet above green, rolling pastureland, inverted. In the cockpit is Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), coolly handling the controls. In the rear of the aircraft, passengers and flight crew are braced for calamity, the plane dropping ever closer to the ground, sheering off a church steeple as it aims for an open field. It's a harrowing moment, beautifully crafted, offering the promise of another Washington stem-winder.
Unfortunately, "Flight" is not about the aftermath of that crash, meaning it's not about the close agency scrutiny that takes place post-event, wherein every aspect of the flight is put under a microscope, to include immediate blood tests for the crew, checking for alcohol and controlled substances, as well as detailed debriefings conducted afterward.
Instead the film departs from what should have been an NTSB investigative procedural, with all attendant tension, becoming instead a dark character study of Whitaker, initially judged to be a heroic pilot who managed to land the plane with 102 passengers on board with a loss of only six lives.
But here's the rub: Whitaker was stoned on vodka and cocaine during the flight. And suddenly, a shroud is thrown over his act of instinctive flying, transforming the film into that generic tale wherein the addict (Whitaker) quits, relapses, binge-drinks and finally finds redemption. A story that is all too familiar.
Clearly the film peaks in act one, hence "Flight" feels like two different movies, both seeming incomplete.