The other day I went to a double bill of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Liberal Arts in the belief that they would complement each other quite nicely. Here’s what I thought:
Adapted from the cult teen-lit, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a classic coming of age story. Directed by the author, Stephen Chbosky, we are introduced to Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he begins his first day of high school. Charlie is a shy, intelligent misfit who we learn has suffered throughout his 16 years, still grieving the loss of his aunt, his best friend and battling mental illness. He becomes friends with the witty, confident Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his troubled, but achingly cool stepsister Sam (Emma Watson) and embarks on a rollercoaster year.
The film deals with a myriad of issues including abuse, homophobia, and mental illness, yet it doesn’t feel as if the film is taking too much on as is often the case with teen films of this nature. Instead, the issues are dealt with organically by a sensitive director and a strong cast. True, it may be overly dramatic at some points (everyone had some sort of unresolved, deep-seated issue), but we wouldn’t want it to be under-dramatic surely?
Although this won’t be the case for people who have read the book, I was genuinely shocked when certain relationships were revealed. I did feel as if the story with Charlie’s sister having an abusive boyfriend was almost forgotten about until the end, but this didn’t detract too much from the film. Overall, I really enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I can’t say whether this would have been diminished by having previously read the book, I always wonder this as people usually have a strong opinion on the topic, but I’d imagine that it is a fairly faithful adaptation given that the director was the author of the original material. I’d also say that having worked in teen film programming over the past year, I’m a relatively good judge of a coming of age film (I’ve seen a lot). A youth film that’s not just for the young ‘uns.
As someone with a liberal arts education (or a Mickey Mouse degree as they call it in this household) and a penchant for the kind of films that open at Sundance, I must admit I was looking forward to this film. However, for me at least, it falls flat.
Josh Radnor (writer, director and star) plays Jesse, a 35 year old college admissions officer who revisits his old college when he is invited to speak at the retirement dinner of his favourite professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). There, he meets and falls for Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19 year old drama student. They partake in some academic foreplay – lamenting pop culture, sharing a newly found love for classical music and long distance handwritten letter exchanging – before Jesse ultimately emerges himself back into college life, but realises that it’s not always possible to go back.
The film is a clever, somewhat amusing take on liberal arts as an academic choice. The increasing range offered by these degrees creates well-informed students, keen and able to critically engage with and debate the world around them, but with what seems like a useless degree. Other films have tackled this recently such as Tiny Furniture which follows a newly graduated film studies major when she has to move back to her mother house (albeit a loft apartment in Tribeca). Liberal Arts takes this theme but manages to freshen up by showing someone who is not straight out of college, offering a different perspective.
It should also be noted that there are some genuinely funny moments, such as Jesse’s encounters with his other favourite professor, Judith Fairfield (the ever fabulous Allison Janney) and a lively debate about a certain vampire novel. The film also benefits from a great cast, not least the remarkable talent of Elizabeth Olsen.
Unfortunately, there are some significant flaws in the film. The supporting characters are underdeveloped and underused. Their stories are presented as token to the central relationship when they could be so much more. We briefly see the newly retired Professor Hoberg having doubts about the path his life is on, clearly supposed to be a parallel to Jesse’s dilemma. This is a nice touch, but it is resolved all too quickly. I would have preferred more time spent on this and eliminating some of the other storylines, such as Dean (John Magaro), the suicidal under-grad who seems placed purely to show what a ‘good guy’ Jesse is. Moreover, the good points of the film are overshadowed by the plethora of cringey moments (i.e. a television star being snooty about television) and the ending. The ENDING! I don’t want to spoil it in case you do want to see this film, but I found it, although possibly realistic, extremely unsatisfying.
So in brief – go and see The Perks of Being a Wallflower, maybe skip Liberal Arts unless you’re really into Ted from How I Met Your Mother.