Sometimes an inexperienced filmmaker can use a helping hand from his cast. That's exactly what Stephen Chbosky got from Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson in the adaptation of his popular young adult novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
Back in the director's chair for only the second time, the filmmaker, like his main character, is a little unsteady on his feet. But thanks to his stars, the film — like the book — is a smartly observed study of a troubled teen's first year in high school.
Chbosky has kept much of his novel's central narrative device — letters written by a depressed freshman named Charlie (Lerman) to an anonymous sympathetic someone — while finding ways to flesh out the teenager's world. Though some things get lost in translation, there are compensating virtues: The dialogue is filled with nifty literary references, a clever nod to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is great fun, and the emotional roller coaster rings true.
Set in a comfortable Pittsburgh suburb in 1991, the film quickly drops us into Charlie's fraught first days, which only solidify his fears that in high school at least he will forever be a friendless fringe player. He's very smart, and sensitive, so he's got that going against him. His best friend, Michael, committed suicide the year before. His second best friend, Susan (Julia Garner), who was Michael's girlfriend, has joined the "in" crowd, which definitely doesn't include Charlie.
His luck begins changing when he braves a football game alone and makes a point of bumping into Patrick (Miller), the brazenly eccentric senior in his shop class. That brings an introduction to Patrick's stepsister Sam (Emma Watson in her best post-"Harry Potter" turn yet) and the idea of a life beyond loser-dom starts to take shape.
From there the film digs into the major theme, which is the messy business of figuring out who you are. There are side issues of sexuality — straight and gay — and friendship. But the engine driving the film is Charlie's personal history. Chbosky takes his time teasing out that particular trauma.
The journey there would probably have proved too dreary if not for Patrick and Sam. While Charlie is the "wallflower," more an observer than a partaker of life, Patrick and Sam throw themselves into every experience. Now they are dragging Charlie along for the ride — and yes, it literally begins with a ride. It's after that first football game and Patrick is racing his pickup through a tunnel while Sam stands in the truck bed, arms outstretched, screaming for joy. Charlie would too, but he can't quite bring himself to let go yet.
That struggle between restraint and freedom is nicely mirrored by the look of the film ("Crazy, Stupid, Love" cinematographer Andrew Dunn) — tight shots when things grow intimate, pulling back whenever the kids emotionally retreat, in the middle of the chaos of the parties and keeping a distance from the wreckage left behind.
Chbosky trusts his audience to understand the subtext of moments without throwing in a lot of unnecessary explanations. That requires a more nuanced level of acting and the core cast is very adept at pulling it off.
Lerman gives Charlie the look of a young colt still trying to get his legs, the awkwardness never overplayed. Watson seems to relish a chance to play a teenager whose only powers are to be smart, sensitive and crush-worthy — she makes sure Sam hits all those notes. But it is Miller, so chilling opposite Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," who gives the minutiae that consume teen conversations some much appreciated jolts of electricity. He gets better with every role.
'The Perks of Being a Wallflower'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; the Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles