Fifteen-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman), an endearing and naive outsider, is coping with first love (Emma Watson), the suicide of his best friend, and his own mental illness while struggling to find a group of people with whom he belongs. The introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors, Sam and Patrick, who welcome him to the real world.

Based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky.

First love, deeply felt.

Bittersweet in the extreme, Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own young adult novel is a rare thing—a coming-of-age film that captures, with wounding accuracy, the balance of beauty and sadness that characterises one’s teenage years. The infatuated ecstasy of making new friends, and the anguish of losing them, as circumstances change and relationships grow attenuated. The mingled rapture and terror of first love.

It’s 1991. Returning to school after a breakdown following the unexplained suicide of his best friend, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is keenly aware of his outsider status; his senior years are like a prison sentence he counts down, day by day.

Isolated from his classmates, too shy to talk, he nonetheless finds himself drawn to the flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his half-sister and best friend Sam (Emma Watson). Patrick, he soon discovers, is not only gay, but carrying on a clandestine, mostly one-sided relationship with one of the school’s football heroes. Sam, meanwhile, has a promiscuous past she’s trying to outrun, and is drawn to a college freshman—aware even as she submits to him that Sam has already fallen desperately in love with her. (Their first kiss, and her reason for it—'I want it to be with somebody who really loves you’—is one of the most tender and affecting moments here.)

All this might sound, in synopsis, like an episode of Glee: the outcasts proudly standing up to be counted. ('Welcome to the island of misfit toys,’ murmurs Sam, by way of welcome to their gang.) The comparison is only enhanced by two musical numbers, both lip-synched to songs from The Rocky Horror Show. But there’s a depth of feeling here, a raw and dismaying intensity of emotion, that Ryan Murphy’s show could barely comprehend, much less equal.

For Charlie is also mentally ill, the result of a trauma not revealed until the film’s final moments. (It’s also, I think, the weakest element here). And his struggle to control his mania, to stay 'normal’, even among the freaks he calls his friends, lends his experiences an air of genuine foreboding and desperation, freighting every happy moment with incipient melancholy—and culminating in a school canteen fight that features one of the most judicious uses of narrative ellipsis in recent cinema.

Fittingly, it’s a film in which music—the bands you love, the mixtapes you make, the songs by which you define yourself—means everything, more even than the Great Books that Charlie dutifully reads for his English teacher (Paul Rudd), and may one day write. We sense already, for example, that Sam’s boyfriend Brad is a conceited douchebag (asked if he writes poetry, he replies, 'It’s more like poetry writes me, you know?’), but the point is rendered incontestable when he interrupts one of Charlie’s tapes at a party to put on 'Funky Cold Medina’. Likewise, the depth of Sam’s soul is signalled by the confession that her moment of epiphany—the realisation that she had to change her life—occurred when she first heard the Cocteau Twins. (And Charlie’s, by his solemn passion for The Smiths’ track 'Asleep’.) It’s all unashamedly self-selecting: if this is the kind of music you love, then this is the film for you.

Regarded for years as 'the one who can act’ in the Harry Potter franchise, Emma Watson acquits herself predictably well, here. However, the honours go to the two male leads. Ezra Miller was a little too dastardly, for my taste, as the titular monster in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin—but then, that whole film felt rather over-egged. This role, more nuanced, makes full use of both his extraordinary physical beauty and his equally formidable screen presence: his Patrick is a delight—funny but never catty, restless yet intensely loyal, open to love and not afraid to suffer in the pursuit of it.

As Charlie, meanwhile, Logan Lerman offers a compelling picture of insecurity: his tongue-tied reserve, his watchful, outsider’s gaze—alert, missing nothing—suggests a damaged personality, locked-down, intent on self-preservation. If Charlie wants to be a writer, as the film implies, you sense it’s mostly because he’s not sure how to actually live.

What Chbosky captures unusually well—aided in no small measure by the cinematography of British veteran Andrew Dunn—are moments of euphoria and abandon. Sam and Patrick dancing wildly, watched from the sidelines by an envious, too-self-conscious Charlie. (A wallflower, remember?) Or a shot of Sam standing in the back of a speeding pickup, her arms outstretched, as Bowie’s 'Heroes' blasts on the stereo. They’re tearing through a tunnel, all flashing lights and sodium-vapour colours, hallucinatory in its intensity. ('I feel infinite,’ breathes Charlie, in the passenger seat.) But then abruptly the tunnel ends, and they’re in the open air, with the lights of the city ahead, and it’s something else: a promise of the life—the adult life, at once more and less real than this one—which awaits them.

It gets better, a recent US anti-bullying slogan claimed, and that, for all its uncritical indulgence of youthful passion, is what this film is about. These pleasures may be ephemeral—but then, so too are these pains. Charlie, though, would doubtless argue that Morrissey put it better. There is another world, he sang; There is a better world. Well, there must be.

There’s a depth of feeling here, a raw and dismaying intensity of
emotion, that [Glee] could barely comprehend, much less
equal.



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Details

M
1 hour 43 min
In Cinemas 29 November 2012,

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