It’s rare for a novelist to adapt and direct an adaptation of their work, yet Stephen Chbosky has done just that with this bit of bildungsroman. It’s rarer still for a film to make a promise that it so resolutely fails to deliver. What exactly are the perks of being a wallflower? Chbosky’s as short on answers as he is on vowels.
Entry into this dysfunctional sect, headed by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, is contingent on a history of abuse, either carefully stowed or heavily repressed. Hating yourself is mandatory; so too having an identity crisis that you compensate for by trying too hard – affectations galore, or too little, in which case you end up like Logan Lerman’s Charlie – a sweet kid with no discernable personality whatsoever.
To the well-adjusted and fully rounded mind, bullying is a nigh on incomprehensible phenomenon: the practice of sociopaths who mysteriously, deviantly, get off on cruelty. In introducing us to Watson’s band of saccharine misfits, Chbosky seems to be challenging us to empathise with the schoolyard antagoniser for the first time. This wasn’t what we signed on for; we were supposed to feel better about our anomic bent; this was billed as a celebration of difference; yet there are moments in this movie when you want to bind Charlie to a chair and force him to eat his mix tapes.
Miller and co. have the bare-faced gall to mock Watson’s pretentious boyfriend for spouting shit like “I don’t write poetry, it writes me”, while vomiting up similar platitudinous gunk – “welcome to the island of misfit toys”, “I feel infinite”, etc. The movie feels potentially infinite in these moments; you want to reach through the screen, shake these living art works, with their ornate phraseology and carefully chosen accessories, and say ‘this is why happy people won’t talk to you!’
Of course in this movie you’d be portrayed as a middling, narrow-minded waste of bone and tissue for thinking such a thing but such stereotyping betrays Chbosky’s ignorance of that constituency. Secretly we all yearn for a little anarchy; a touch of colour and imagination in our humanoids, but self-awareness, an irony gland – that’s the stuff – not this kind of nook conformity rebranded as militant individualism.
From the normally reliable adults down – witness Paul Rudd as an unbearably earnest English teacher whose cynicism has been checked at the studio door, plus a meek Joan Cusack – the film’s populated with characters existing in an arid world: a place where people get stoned and crave a milkshake, where everyone’s bright but curiously witless, where a connoisseur of ‘80’s music has never heard of David Bowie or Heroes, one of his greatest hits.
That isn’t to say this beige flick, destined to become the movie of choice for groups of girls on sleepovers, doesn’t have its merits. There are uniformly excellent performances, particularly from Ezra Miller who inhabits his character in much the same way he wowed in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Emma Watson, the only useful by-product of the Harry Potter franchise, who’s graceful and vulnerable here; the kind of girlfriend every teenage boy would have wanted until they discovered her affection was rooted in warped sexuality. Seriously though Emma, you’ve never heard Heroes? Really?