If all movies were made under the conditions which Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower then Hollywood would be a very different place. Chbosky's film is based on his own novel of the same name, published in 1999 and set in an early 1990's that doesn't go heavy on the period detail. The film of Perks honors the gentle tone and kind spirit of the novel, and it benefits from a remarkably good ensemble of young actors who each give their roles a special kind of honesty. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting high school after some time in the hospital following the suicide of a friend and the death of his beloved, eccentric Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). Chbosky uses the novel's device of Charlie's diary-like letters to a "friend" as a framing voice-over, but doesn't go too heavy on the boy's awkward thoughts.
The soul of Perks lies in the stepsiblings who soon arrive to take Charlie under their wing. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is an unrestrained senior carrying on a secret affair with the school's quarterback (Johnny Simmons). Miller is playing a 2012 gay teen as opposed to one who would have existed in the year that the book unfolds, but it's a warm, memorable performance that hits fragile notes at just the right moments. Patrick's stepsister and near-constant companion Sam (Emma Watson) quickly becomes the center of Charlie's new world. Watson is very good here; Sam is an obvious candidate for Manic Pixie status but Watson wraps her in layers of self-doubt over everything from her application to Penn State to her relationship with a jerk of a college boyfriend (Reece Thompson). Sam is a small triumph, a role that heralds good adult work from Watson in years to come. The story proceeds through Charlie's ups and downs, from dabbling in light drugs to a tentative first relationship with one of Sam's friends (Mae Whitman). Chbosky's restraint is the film's guiding impulse; no music-video montages here, there's a specificity that anchors Perks all the way down, from the worn copy of Catcher in the Rye Charlie receives from his English teacher (Paul Rudd) to all of the carefully constructed mixtapes and the way that the one phone line in Charlie's house is tied up by a talkative friend. Finally Perks is about young people trying to be their best selves, a pleasant surprise in a movie landscape where teen characters get exploited because of all the things they aren't yet. In its own quiet way The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the year's best films.