I’ve been meaning to work a Movie Review segment into this blog for some time now, but really haven’t found the right moment (or movie, for that matter) to kick it off.
Well move over bacon…it’s SizzleLean. Um, I mean, welcome to “Everyone’s a Critic,” a forum in which I take my zero years of film review experience, zero combined classroom hours of film study and zero authority on anything related to cinema, directing, acting, producing or editing, and aim them, concurrently, at some unsuspecting cinematic production just like Peter, Ray, Egon (and Winston) targeted all things phantasmagorical with their proton packs. So with apologies to the likes of Gene Siskel (RIP), Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, David Edelstein and their ilk…
After graduating college, my roommate and I kept Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia on our coffee table as a reference while we watched movies and television. We would eagerly thumb through this cumbersome tome whenever we came across any actor or movie that triggered a “have to know and won’t be able to fall asleep tonight if I don’t” moment in either one of us, which occurred at least once a day. This burden was thrust upon us, by the way, because our cohabitation took place in a time just before Al Gore unveiled the Internet (actually, that’s not really accurate, but it was before IMDb, Wikipedia and other Internet sources for all sorts of cinematic arcana were available, if you can wrap your mind around that).
Said roommate was (and still is) a huge film buff. He would likely list Scorsese, Spielberg and John Hughes among his heroes. He did attend film school, logged hours of classroom credits in all things cinema, and secretly wished (perhaps still wishes) something akin to the plot of The Freshman occurred to him while innocently going about his own NYU curriculum.
I hereby dedicate this first installment of “Everyone’s A Critic” to that roommate and lifelong friend, who is currently on his Honeymoon after a literal storybook wedding. Congratulations to him and his beautiful bride.
Friendships we make during our adolescence can be powerful. And now I can’t help but think of Mrs. Smith in Better Off Dead grabbing poor Monique’s face as she says: “Friend. You know, Friend?” (I really wanted to attach this clip here for reference, and was shocked to find that in the entirety of the Interweb, nobody has uploaded this treasure. I mean, Laura Waterbury is priceless in this film playing Dennis Blunden’s, er, I mean Ricky Smith’s mother…but all I could find were her “Christmas” and “International Language” clips. If any of you can find the “Friend” clip, please let me know or post in the comments section). But, as usual, I digress.
We share our most awkward and fragile times in our lives with our middle and high school friends, and often rely on them as sounding boards, confidantes, comic relief, and vital companions as we fight tooth and nail to find our way in a world that can be cruel, confusing and overwhelming at times. I think Richard Dreyfuss’ adult version of Gordie LaChance said it best in Stand By Me: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
With that in mind, it brings me joy to announce The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the first movie I will review. After John Hughes passed on (actually, after he inexplicably stopped making movies about teen angst), my generation has been craving a good coming of age cinematic storyteller. Sure, there have been some valiant efforts over the years to fill Hughes shoes: Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, Donnie Darko, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Juno, Superbad, etc. But despite some brilliant one-off efforts, there is a gold standard when mining the high school experience for cinematic exuberance, and in the mid 1980s, John Hughes set it…over and over again. (Sidebar: Cameron Crowe, with a distinguished oeuvre that includes Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, as well as Almost Famous, which does focus on teen angst and insecurity as a primary theme, certainly has earned a reserved seat at this exclusive table).
Stephen Chbosky adapted his own highly acclaimed novel for the big screen. His tale is ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious in tackling a seemingly large number of issues that plague modern youth, and if I had any complaint at all regarding this film, it would be rooted in that over-zealous ambition.
That said, the story works and the acting is far beyond any expectations one could have for a film comprised of characters primarily in their mid to late teens. In fact, some of the performances are brilliant. Even the cameos and bit parts played by familiar “adult” actors add welcome, innocuous accompaniment to the stellar cast.
Some will argue this film (and the book it is based upon) offers characters and plot resolutions that are too good or too neat for the powerful and ugly (at times) storylines that are explored. My answer to that is people are jaded. You can’t accept the hokey tabletop birthday cake scene with Jake Ryan and Sam Baker at the end of Sixteen Candles (or Farmer Ted waking up in a Rolls Royce with the prom queen for that matter) without a desire for a neat, Hollywood ending. That’s what audiences want. That is why Claire can kiss John Bender and wrap her giant diamond earring in his hand as the credits roll, and why Ferris successfully eludes Rooney and his parents. It is why we not only accept Lloyd Dobler getting on that plane with Diane Court, we expect it.
Sure, perhaps elements of Charlie’s relationship with his new friends, and with Sam in particular, seem forced and unlikely at times. But we want things to work out favorably for Charlie…and for Sam and Patrick. We enjoy seeing Paul Rudd as a friendly, inspirational role model for our protagonist despite every cliché and tired action his character is seemingly forced into by the script (his performance is strong nonetheless, and his character has perhaps the best non-comedic line of the entire film). Like with Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore in Donnie Darko, we really don’t care how ridiculous or forced their dialogue may be – we just respect them for finding a worthy script and joining the cast of a special film, even if it is a small role outside their comfort zone.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has its warts, just as all adolescent students have theirs. However, the script is witty, unique and at times, moving. The characters are likable and generally plausible. And the music, as with any teen angst movie worth watching, is terrific.
Because I was a senior in high school myself when this film takes place, the soundtrack certainly resonates with me (and likely my contemporaries) even more. Music plays a huge part in our formative years, often setting the mood for how we interpret, participate and adapt to the world around us. You can actually witness and feel the impact music has on the characters in this film, at times cringing in disbelief and at times smiling and nodding and tapping your feet as appropriate lyrics and emotionally relevant melodies envelop us along with our on-screen companions.
As previously conceded, my resume fails to empower me as an expert authority, or even an amateur wannabe, on anything film-related. So please bear with me as I briefly discuss the cinematography. I thought it was great. Scenes flowed together effortlessly, and crafty dialog and cut-aways allowed our imagination to create some of the film’s more graphic, unpleasant and violent scenes and images in our heads rather than on screen. The director even used some creative filming and editing techniques to seamlessly fade unrelated images into one another as scenes began and ended, as well as intelligently used music lyrics to help tell his story or to reinforce images and themes.
My favorite element of TPOBAW was its focus on friendship, and how important friends can be to our survival during our adolescence and while navigating the pitfalls of high school. And there are many such pitfalls: from parental pressure to hormonal changes, from our first job to dating woes, from sexual experimentation to maintaining our eligibility for athletics, from college prep to our first car, from fitting in to finding a date for the prom, from cigarettes, alcohol and drugs to problems at home, from peer pressure to acne, for most, high school is fraught with horrifying potential.
At the base of this film’s plot is a story of friendship, and how it profoundly affects the trajectory of the primary characters’ lives. Despite what the overwhelming majority of Hollywood’s teen movie genre may indicate, high school stories center on much more than the jocks and cheerleaders, than the popular kids. Every one of us lived through high school and have become who we are today from the unique experience we had during those crucial years. John Hughes knew this, and gave us a balanced account in most of his films. Judd Apatow and Paul Feig also knew this as they delivered their masterpiece, the television drama Freaks and Geeks, which unfortunately was axed after only one brilliant season, far too early.
Bottom line, Chbosky put forth a worthy effort in exploring teen angst; and considering he had to edit, and in some ways, compromise his own novel to do so makes it even more admirable. J.D. Salinger, the undisputed master of teen angst prose, never breathed cinematic life into his opus. I am in no way drawing a comparison to The Catcher In The Rye here for TPOBAW, though I would not be the first to do so (click this amazing piece and this book review for a sampling). I am saying that Chbosky tells a poignant and powerful tale of teen life in early 1990s Pittsburgh that resonates today with people of all ages, of all geographies, males, females, gay and straight, and that is an accomplishment worthy of praise.
Tying in with the theme of TPOBAW, I attended my aforementioned roommate’s (and lifelong friend’s) wedding this past weekend. Many of our high school friends were there. It was so incredible to celebrate with all of them, to relive our youth and also fill in the gaps of life since high school for those we don’t see or speak to as regularly anymore. Reuniting with my own companions and support system, my friends, who made my high school years manageable, memorable, and fortunately for me, four generally fun and carefree years in my life, was incredible, but also bittersweet.
Why, you might ask? Well I keep hearing Dreyfuss’ voice echoing in my head. No, we never do have friends like we do during our adolescence. A lot of this certainly has to do with nostalgia for our own youth and innocence. Maybe all of it does. Even if we are lucky enough to retain those friends from our youth, life changes. We don’t see these people every day like we used to. We don’t have the free time we used to. We may not even live in the same state or country as these people.
But those friends we make in high school are not diminished by our changing lives. Whether they remain our closest friends or have drifted away, their importance at the crossroads of our personal development dictates that they remain part of us forever, woven into the fabric of our very essence.
And those are the Perks of being part of whatever group of friends you happened to make and fall in with in high school. They are meaningful and profound, and if you are lucky, they are eternal.
I thank you all for reading and for your friendship. It was great to reminisce with those of you I saw in New York.
Everyone’s A Critic Grade: The Perks of Being a Wallflower – A 94/100 “EAC It” (Yes, I decided I needed a hokey tagline)