Whether you call it the “high-school” or “teen film” genre, films about angsty outsider kids trying to fit in are about as ubiquitous in cinema as their romcom and dramedy genre counterparts. Maybe their success lies in the way teen films manage to combine the best of their genre competitors by distilling their complex narratives into the simplest “boy meets girl” essence. Simple, cliched films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Clueless” stand out from their competitors by being both kitsch and timeless. One can tell from Stephen Chbosky’s wannabe-Facebook-status dialogue that he was aiming “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” at the same mark. Unfortunately for Mr. Chbosky, who adapted and directed “Wallflower” from his own novel, I can’t see “#WEAREINFINITE” trending on Twitter anytime soon.
From the moment the first notes of its self-consciously retro soundtrack waft into the cinema, “Wallflower” force-feeds viewers an inferior, poorly made version of a beloved genre. The protagonist, Charlie (Logan Lerman), is a pretty ordinary suburban kid. He lives in upper-middle class middle-America so dull and charming that it might have been co-written by David Axelrod and Beth Myers. But (surprise, surprise) brewing not so deeply under this cozy neighborhood built of recycled American Beauty sets is a hotbed of repressed teen angst. Charlie is steeling himself for his first day of school by imagining it’s his last. Eventually, Charlie meets some nice friends, seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Patrick is charismatic and gay. Sam is beautiful and screwed up because of a history of bad boyfriends — a personality trait the equally good-looking Paul Rudd, I mean, Mr. Anderson, tells us is due to the fact that we “expect the love we think we deserve.” Sam is a dame in need of saving, but does Charlie have the confidence in himself to do it? Presumably, we’ll get the answer when Chbosky reveals what the perks of being an angry, suicidal wallflower are.
By the 20-minute mark, “Wallflower” has all its pieces in play: the two good-guy friends, the messed-up protagonist, the unsympathetic parents and the suicide backstory. Cliche? Well, yes. But cliche isn’t what’s wrong with this movie. Cliches are the vocabulary of many of the greatest works of popular fiction. “Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars” and “Clueless” were all riddled with cliches, but where they diverge from “Wallflower” is in the respect for their audiences. It is not enough to update a genre by merely pushing the boat out by earnestly depicting homosexuality, drug use and domestic and sexual violence. As admirable as these may be, they’re surface glosses upon a tired and under-thought product. Chbosky gravely underestimates his audience if he thinks they can be fooled by bells and whistles — or rather, gays and drugs. High-schoolers who are shocked by gay kids are either attending school in 1912 or looking for careers as Todd Akin’s speechwriter.
The teen film is a trap for first-time filmmakers. While it may be derided for its unashamed entreaties to the masses, it is this very populism that fills the genre with pitfalls. It is almost like a great sports game in which every spectator knows the rules and is more than willing to call the players out on them. It was Chbosky’s challenge to craft something interesting and affecting within the confines of his genre. Instead, “Wallflower” feels slack and sloppy, and quite without perk. By the time the film drew to its much delayed close, the only hashtag I could think of was “#betterlucknexttime.”