Sunday, December 9, 2012

The perks of knowing a WGA member

Hello everyone, and welcome to my annual "What screener did Vance get from his WGA friend this year?" post. (For past installations in this "series," see here, here and here.)

As you know if you followed those links, every December I enter into an awkward phase of my existence in which I try to figure out a natural way to borrow a screener from my friend who's part of the Writers Guild of America, without seeming like I care too much about whether it happens. I don't want it to be viewed as one of those things where I'm just in it for the screener, even though Phil and I see each other regularly throughout the year, and even though Phil would never view it that way or care even if he did. (I've called him Phil in past posts, though I abandoned that tradition last year. Might as well resume this year.)

Usually my borrowing scenario arises when I'm over at his house for some other reason, but this year it was a little different. Phil messaged me on Facebook the other day to tease me, and ended up giving me an opening for the screener topic to come up organically.

But I need to give you the history, since this goes back to a poker game in October.

At this particular poker game at Phil's house, I put forward the argument that Maya Rudoph is sexy. I didn't even think I was saying anything particularly controversial, but everyone else present, including one woman, shouted me down and thought I was crazy. Well, I think they're the crazy ones. Rudolph is sexy -- for a good example, check her out in Idiocracy. It's not nearly the only example, and Paul Thomas Anderson certainly agrees with me.

So this week Phil sends me a Facebook message, joking that he should loan me his screener of Friends With Kids in order to feed my Maya Rudolph obsession.


Even though his suggestion wasn't serious, I answered it seriously enough, telling him I'd already seen Friends, but asking what else he had. He listed them off, and the only one I hadn't seen was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Which he quickly declared was his favorite of the bunch. He said I could borrow it as long as I came by one of the next two nights and returned it the next day, because he was sending a shipment of screeners off to his parents on Friday. This was Tuesday.

I was happy to oblige, but I did feel that little twinge of guilt about making trips to his house on consecutive days just so I could watch a movie that wasn't available on DVD yet. (Since you are reading a film blog right now, you know how intoxicating it is to watch a movie on your TV that isn't yet available on DVD, but the average person probably thinks it's much ado about nothing.) I initially told him to never mind, feeling that the transaction made me seem a little icky, but he insisted so I accepted the offer and told him I'd come by that afternoon after work.

I'm glad I've gotten the chance to see it, because I had only recently checked on the expected release date of the DVD on Netflix, which was accompanied only by the lonely word "Unknown." I figured that ruled out all of January, which meant I definitely wouldn't be able to rank it with my 2012 films.

I'd actually come close to seeing it in the theater -- as close as a person can come, really. After I watched Argo back in October, I knew I was taking in a second (free) movie and had hoped to make it Perks. But when I reached the door of the theater where it was playing, the opening credits were already rolling. Not knowing whether I'd missed an important nugget of action/dialogue before the credits, I opted for the masterpiece known as Alex Cross (please note the sarcasm), which had the benefit of starting five minutes later. As I discovered this week when watching it, I wouldn't have missed any action, but better safe than sorry.

I'd heard a number of praises of Perks that went from the low end to the high end of good: guarded praise from one friend who had been looking forward to it for months, and a woman on a Facebook discussion group who immediately crowned it her favorite film of the year. So I decided I definitely needed to see it to judge where my own opinion would fall.

And judge I have.


Rarely have I seen a film involving teenagers -- ever -- that was so sensitive and humanistic in its approach to their lives, without ever becoming precious or maudlin. In fact, the sheer earnest optimism with which it presented them, while also acknowledging their numerous faults and bits of baggage, gave me chills on maybe a dozen occasions. Sometimes I felt like I was just tingling for whole ten-minute periods at a time.

One of the first things that struck me was that it took my wife and me 20 minutes to realize that the movie wasn't set in the present. That's a good thing. Many period pieces hit you over the head with exactly when they take place, wanting to establish that context so you can appreciate the movie exactly how it was intended. But The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not "about" taking place in 1991 (the exact year is never mentioned, but I saw that date listed in a synopsis). It's about the characters, and only after we'd heard enough songs from before 1990 did we realize that it was not just an aesthetic choice by the director that these older songs were playing. "I don't think this movie takes place in the present" I told my wife, somewhat absurdly, and it was clear she also thought it might have been a modern-day movie. It seems absurd in retrospect, because no one was carrying cell phones or ipads or laptops -- in fact, several characters make each other mix tapes. But a period production design can be undertaken for purely aesthetic reasons -- think Wes Anderson -- so we thought that might have been the case here. This is an embarrassingly protracted way of saying I'm glad the movie didn't confront me with its era so overtly.

Plot-wise, what you're seeing here is nothing new, and in fact, the title probably tells you a lot of what you might expect to see. There are teenage archetypes aplenty, but Perks doesn't get bogged down in them. Even the arty misfits you're supposed to identify with display extraordinary dimension within the realm of the character traits you're expecting. Again, it's nothing new for a movie to make its wallflower characters the viewer's surrogates, but by spending more time with these characters rather than having them in constant direct opposition to the jocks and other popular kids, it amply demonstrates their weaknesses and fickle ways, instead of simplistically rendering them as outsider saints.

It's probably worth saying a thing or two about the performances. The primary actor of note is of course Emma Watson, finally getting out from under the Harry Potter series that so wearied her. Those eight films may have exhausted her and changed her life forever in ways that are not all positive, but they also give us a 22-year-old actress who has the skills and emotional range of a veteran, which is precisely what she is. She is sheer magnetism in this movie.

However, even her performance is not nearly the strongest. The lead character is played by Logan Lerman, an actor two years Watson's junior who has actually been making movies a year longer than she has. You may know him from such films as (Troy McLure voice) Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief and The Three Musketeers. But after this film, you will know him from this. He has the more difficult role and is simply astounding in the range of things he is asked to do. Last but not least among the performers worth singling out is Ezra Miller, also 20, whom you may not know from anything (unless you saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I did not). His role as Watson's gay stepbrother is very necessary comic relief that has a deceptive emotional depth all its own. It's hard to gauge exactly how important it is that these high school kids are played by actors who are under 22 -- these three actors, at least. But I'm betting it added significantly to the film's verisimilitude.

I also think it's worth devoting a word or two to Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the much-loved novel on which this movie was based. But that isn't all Chbosky did -- he also adapted his own book, and directed the film. I'm sure that's happened before, but no examples come to mind. And if it has happened, it seems an unlikely undertaking for a first-time director. There's no doubting that the decision to place executive, legislative and judicial power all in the hands of the same guy has worked out for this one. No external interpretation of his vision was necessary, since he controlled it from book page to script page to screen. That could be disastrous in some situations; here, it was wondrous.

Look, Perks isn't always entirely subtle (though it usually is), and sometimes you feel like every character is afflicted with some kind of problem from an after school special. And it does include two separate scenes where characters stand out of the sunroofs of cars going at high speeds, taking in the wind, Rose DeWitt Bukater style, while listening to David Bowie's "Heroes."

But the movies we love aren't always movies with crazy narrative structures or high-concept ideas we've never considered. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those films that reminds us that familiar genres infused with a distinctive touch of originality and grace can tingle our spines just as much.

As it did mine for sometimes ten minutes at a time.

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