Kensington Cinema, midnight, sometime in the early nineties. I’m sitting in lopsided theater seat near the front row, watching my first live-cast performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A slice of Wonder Bread sits in my lap along with other equally inexplicable items. I have no idea what it’s for, but I’ve been assured I’ll need it later. Up on the screen, Brad and Janet abandon their stranded car to seek shelter for the night. Meanwhile, on the concrete apron between the screen and the front row, a couple I met just a few minutes earlier reenacts the scene, word for word, with perfect timing.
Fast forward twenty years. A different theater, a very different me. My seat is more comfortable. There’s nothing funky in my lap. Up on the screen, Emma Watson, wearing nothing but her skivvies, lip-syncs “Touch Me” to an equally under-dressed Logan Lerman. His face is a portrait of dumb-struck, terrified happiness. And I’m taken back decades, to a night when my face probably looked much the same.
It’s a testament to Watson’s performance that at no point do I stop, like a swimmer bursting suddenly out of the water, and think “Holy crap. Hermione’s in her underwear.” For the duration of this film she is simply Sam, the generous, damaged love object of Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Although Perks is technically a high school movie, I’m not sure what the smart-phone generation would make of this film, which is set firmly in the technology-lite world their parents came of age in. This is very much the time of my late adolescence. A world I’d just about forgotten, but suddenly found myself missing. A time when a manual typewriter was merely quaint, not absurd. An era in which, if you heard a cool song on the radio, it might take you weeks to figure out who sang it. A time when, if you really loved someone, you made them a mix-tape.
But it wasn’t merely the era or the familiar soundtrack tunes that had me waxing nostalgic. Mostly, it was the characters, all of whom felt just as familiar. Perks is the story of Charlie, a depressive high school freshman with memory issues, who is befriended by Patrick and Sam, eccentric step-sibling seniors, and the rest of their clique. Each of these characters could have slid easily into familiar types–punker, klepto, recovering party girl, gay outcast–but the depth of the performances and the undeniable realism of the situations they are thrust into make them into complete human beings. More than that. They reminded me of people I liked and even loved when I was in high school.
Add to that a recurring sense of dejá vu, the feeling that I’d actually lived through some of these scenes myself, way back when. Whether it was Charlie’s fist encounter with an out-of-the-closet homosexual (and his immediate, no-big-thing acceptance of it), his pop-eyed introduction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a kiss with exactly the wrong person, or that perfect song on the car stereo, I knew just what he had to be feeling because I’d been there myself.
The events of my youth were neither as epic nor as sad as the things that happen to Charlie and company in this story. But at the time, my smaller problems felt big as mountains, and all-consuming. That teen self-seriousness is another thing this movie captures very well. But most of all it conveys what it feels like to be taken in, to be accepted without questions or conditions, to be given a second family’s worth of friends at a time when you yourself aren’t sure you have anything to offer.
To conclude, if you grew up weird in the early nineties, this is a film you simply must see, because this is your life, or at least your youth. I think you’ll find it’s worth reliving.
Finally, I should point out that some critics have chastised Chbosky, a man with no prior experience, for directing this adaptation himself. Film Comment’s Violet Lucca went so far as to say that he “seems more skilled as a novelist than a visual storyteller.” I beg to differ. Perks is as well-made a film as any I’ve seen recently, and one of my favorites of this year.