Starting high school is traumatic enough without a tragic loss, a mental breakdown, and other baggage in your recent past. But this is what accompanies Charlie (Logan Lerman) on his first day as a freshman in 1990s Pittsburgh.
Ill-equipped to handle this trauma, Charlie's old friends, and even his older sister, barely acknowledge his presence, and so Charlie is relegated to the worst of all high school hells: sitting alone at lunch. Only 1,384 more days of high school to go, he writes to an obscure stranger—a plot device that peppers the film.
At a school football game soon after, Charlie makes nice with Patrick (Ezra Miller), the lone senior in his freshman shop class. Exuberant, witty, and openly gay, Patrick soon takes Charlie under his wing and into his orbit of misfits, who are all suffering from their own dramas and shady pasts. Charlie helps them with academics, and they involve him in their indie music fanzine, Rocky Horror live drama shows, and, most importantly, their tight-knit, quirky community. Together they all enjoy the gift of being unfazed by one another's brokenness.
Within that group, Charlie falls hard and fast for Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick's half-sister, a senior who is still trying to live down the sexual reputation she gained during her freshman year, a past she now regrets. While she dates someone else, she and Charlie become close friends, and he yearns for her with all the exquisite pain of a first love.
The rest of the group is chock full of drama. Perhaps too much drama. There's the shoplifter, the gay guy dating the closeted football player, and the angry, feminist Buddhist. There's sexual abuse, depression, homophobia, and psychotic blackouts. All within this community of six high schoolers.
Charlie also has a kindly English teacher who takes special interest in him as a writer and as a person; an older brother who was a football legend at the school; an older sister who's dating an idiot; and parents who don't quite understand. All sounds kind of familiar, no?
This slice of high school is brought to us by Stephen Chbosky, the film's director, screenwriter, and author of the bestselling 1999 novel on which it's based. Though his rendition of teenage angst is somewhat familiar, it's also endearingly earnest and keenly insightful—a cut above much of the vapid teen drama gracing screens both big and small in recent years. In its best moments, Wallflower wrestles with grief and guilt and shows how utterly essential a strong community is to weathering these huge issues.
Another strength of Wallflower is the excellent "teen" cast. Lerman is appropriately muffled as the depressed and grieving Charlie. Watson proves she can be quite winsome even without her wizarding wand. But the real star of the show is Miller as larger-than-life Patrick, the ringleader of this band of misfits. His exuberance is delightfully entertaining—even as he deals with drama after drama after drama.
When I was a teen, our angst films were 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club, and when I think about it, these films had more than their fair share of familiar stereotypes and drama-plagued characters. I think films in this genre show us a teenage experience we alternately felt like we were having or felt like everyone but us was having. And perhaps that's the point of teen films—to capture the dramas, both within and without, both real and imagined, and to help us feel less alone at that lunch table filled with misfits or with just us and a book. And in that respect, Wallflowers certainly delivers.