An introverted high school freshman makes new friends who help him open up.
Steven Chbosky, 2016
High school freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman) has a strategy for surviving the next four years of high school: keep his head down, stay out of everyone’s way, and don’t speak up. However, after seeing outgoing student Patrick (Ezra Miller) stand up to a mean teacher, he decides to approach the older student and sit with him at a football game. Patrick and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson) invite Charlie to a party, and the three of them become close friends. Charlie develops feelings for the beautiful Sam, coming alive as the older students introduce him to new music, experiences, and friendship. However, as the year goes by, Charlie is haunted by the ghosts of his past. The imminent departure of his friends as they approach the end of their high school careers causes Charlie additional stress.
This was a surprisingly lovely film. Director Steven Chbosky, who also wrote the semi-autobiographical book on which the film is based, has a light touch and a strong visual aesthetic. He handles heavy thematic elements with sensitivity but not too much sentimentality. He captures the fleeting joys and challenges of youth with empathy. There are giddy highs and deep lows, echoing the teen experience. This is not a cynical look at young people; instead, it treats their need for connection as valid and important. The chemistry between the three leads is convincing, with Patrick’s openness and instant affection for Charlie countering Charlie and Sam’s slow build. The film also embraces Charlie’s sensitivity – there are plenty of movies with quiet, artistic teen boys as the protagonist (unsurprisingly, given that the majority of said movies are written by men who were once awkward, artistic teen boys), but this film digs into Charlie’s psychology in a way most films don’t. We get to see why these kids like Charlie, too – he’s a supportive friend, rather than just a silent observer of what’s going on around him. It also acknowledges the darker side of Charlie’s friendship with kids who are older than him – he’s introduced to some dangerous behaviour at a young age.
There is an episodic nature to this adaptation that can be frustrating to watch. We hit all the major events in the year – Homecoming, Christmas, birthdays, etc. – and some of the scenes feel like they’re there because they’re in the book, rather than any significance to the main arc of the film. Paul Rudd’s sympathetic teacher feels like a character that could be cut all together, even though he’s sweet in the role. There is also some dialogue that comes across as a little too pretentious – Charlie wants to be a writer, so it’s not entirely surprising coming from him, but there’s some stilted dialogue from other characters as well. However, these hiccups are smoothed over by strong performances from the central cast. Emma Watson is lovely, putting in a mature performance as a girl who’s working hard to stay true to herself and overcome her own past. Ezra Miller is effervescent, stealing almost every scene he’s in. Logan Lerman comes into his own in the powerful final act, as Charlie’s anxiety comes to a head and we discover the root of his trauma. It’s an incredible reveal that is played perfectly.