Nominated for Nothing: 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower'
Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s emotional adaptation of his own seminal YA novel, starring Logan Lerman as titular wallflower Charlie, Emma Watson (in her first major post-Harry Potter role, unless you count My Week With Marilyn, which you shouldn’t)as his damaged dream girl Sam, and Ezra Miller as Patrick, Sam’s flamboyant and flamboyantly awesome stepbrother/best friend.
Why it Wasn’t Nominated: Though Perks was first published in 1999, it’s set during the 1991-1992 school year — making this story catnip for modern-day alternateens and nostalgic Gen X-ers alike. Unfortunately, since most members of the Academy skew slightly older than either of those groups, this quiet high school movie probably wasn’t even on their awards radar.
More broadly, the Academy Awards have a history of ignoring films in the teen movie canon — classics of the genre like Clueless, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heathers, and Rushmore were all ignored during their respective Oscar years. (An exception: American Graffiti, which was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture.) Stories about teenagers tend to be seen as inherently frivolous, unless they’re anchored by an inspirational adult figure (see Best Original Screenplay winner Dead Poets Society) or a hamburger phone, as contradictory as that may seem (hello, Juno).
A cast that’s filled with franchise vets and TV actors probably didn’t help matters. Before Wallflower, Lerman was best known for playing the son of Poseidon in 2010’s goofy Percy Jackson adaptation. Watson is famous for starring in the biggest, most lucrative film series of all time. Charlie’s mother, father, and sister are all played by television vets — Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, and Nina Dobrev — who don’t even have the decency to star on HBO or AMC shows. And though Miller’s breakout role was the murderous title character in arthouse favorite We Need to Talk About Kevin, one artsy actor does not a prestige cast make.
Why History Will Remember It Better Than Amour: There’s nothing original about unrequited teen romance, young outsiders gradually finding the place where they belong, or a troubled kid who opens to an amazing teacher. Even so, Perks breathes life into this potentially clichéd material. The movie captures the joy and agony of high school without condescending to its audience or romanticizing its characters’ pain. More importantly, it manages to incorporate a host of capital-I Issues — abuse, major depression, suicide — without ever feeling melodramatic. The movie also allows its characters to engage in normal teenage behavior — read: drinking and recreational drug usage — without sensationalizing what they’re doing or punishing them for it, an attitude that’s curiously difficult to find in movies about adolescents.
Stephen Chbosky deserves credit for writing a script that channels the spirit of his novel while smoothing over its rougher edges — Charlie’s robotic prose, Sam’s Manic Pixie Dreamgirl-esque characterization, and a third-act twist that’s less of a head-scratcher here than it was in the book. (In both, though, that plot point is unnecessary; giving such a definitive reason for Charlie’s alienation feels like a cop-out.) Perks is clearly an intensely personal story, but Chbosky’s screenplay makes it specific but universal, broad enough to be relatable yet grounded by its period setting and bits of well-placed local color. (Pittsburgh natives will thrill to see characters talk about going to Schenley Park or calling each other “jagoffs.”)
Too often, adaptations of beloved novels try (and fail) to literally translate the book’s story from page to screen. But Perks isn’t a slavish transliteration of its source material — Chbosky freely excises clunky backstory and extraneous subplots. That’s a risky move, especially for a book that has such an ardent, passionate fanbase — but here, it works. It’s almost as if Perks the novel was always meant to be a rough draft, while Perks the movie is the polished finished product — a version of this story that benefits from the years of maturation Chbosky endured between the book’s publication and the movie’s completion.
The film’s strong performances are also worthy of recognition. Logan Lerman’s quietly powerful Charlie brought humor to a character who comes across as stiff on the page, though his performance may be a little too understated to wow awards voters. Ezra Miller, though, definitely could have scored a nod — especially considering how dull this year’s Best Supporting Actor race is.
Patrick is colorful but not cartoonish, a welcome burst of light in a story that verges on overwrought — and when Miller is tasked with more serious scenes, he’s just as captivating as when he’s suggesting that Charlie try writing a detective series called Slut and the Falcon. Between Perks and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miller’s certainly proving himself to be a young actor with preternatural range; if nothing else, Oscar glory does seem to be in his future.