The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those retroactive teen movies, seeking to impose the values of a fortysomething writer-director on characters who aren’t old enough to know any better. The kids in Stephen Chbosky’s unpersuasive adaptation of his own young adult bestseller give one another mixtapes and typewriters, rather than MP3s and STDs; when one of its youthful leads is heard to yelp “oh my God, they’re playing good music” at a homecoming dance, the track they end up jiving to is “Come On Eileen”. Chbosky wouldn’t be the first director who, when faced with going through adolescence all over again, retreated into reassuring fantasy, but it’s almost as though he hasn’t seen the inside of a shopping mall for the best part of 25 years.
The wallflower in question is friendless nice guy Charlie (Logan Lerman, just the right side of bland), trying to find his place at high school with the aid of slacking, mocking, openly gay senior Patrick (We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller, pushing rather too hard) and punky sweetheart Sam (Emma Watson, with creditable US accent). Chbosky’s overall project, however, is to reframe the past through adult eyes; so concerned is he with asserting sound hipster taste on his characters that all logic gets scrambled. Sam insists “everything sounds better on vinyl”, yet she doesn’t recognise that it’s Bowie who’s singing “Heroes”, let alone the track itself. Bizarrely, the film pursues the point further: not one of these notionally culture-savvy teens can track a copy of “Heroes” down, referring to it in the awed tones of some obscure rarity. (God knows what they’d do if they ever heard “The Laughing Gnome”.)
Perks has nice things in dispatches – Paul Rudd as the kind of English teacher we’d all want to have had, Watson in a Santa hat granting Lerman his first kiss – yet that soundtrack keeps drowning out whatever issues the script wants a go at, and its sincere baloney extends beyond rock ‘n’ roll to sex (“I’m tired of touching her breasts,” moans Charlie of one swiftly dumped girlfriend, becoming the first teenage boy in history to utter these words) and drugs (according to Chbosky, acid casualties end up shovelling snow in geometrically perfect circles). Even the much-derided Glee, which has cast thirtysomethings as quarterbacks and cheerleaders, has shown more of a clue as to how teenagers really sound, and what they might do.
In the meantime, the hits keep on coming: XTC’s “Dear God”, New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”, the Cocteau Twins’ “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops”, Young MC’s “Bust a Move”, L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” – great songs all, yet songs that have as much business being here as Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Head” would have on the soundtrack of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Perks will go down a treat among teenagers who would consider themselves sophisticated – but you can bet they’ll be back to belching Mountain Dew and showing each other their rude bits on Chatroulette soon enough.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens nationwide today.