High school has always been fertile terrain for American coming of age films. Put late teen years into a movie and you get first kisses, proms, drugs, angst, and a host of deep dark secrets. Writer-director Steven Chbosky delivers all of that here, transforming his 1999 novel into a sane, painful and emotionally generous portrait of Pennsylvania high school friends who are at once mature but vulnerable, surefooted but weak.
The lightening rod is Charlie (Logan Lerman), an incoming high school freshman with a history of emotional problems. His desire to get past the suicide of his best friend and the death of his aunt is stalled by shyness at the core of story (the source of which is awkwardly revealed). Enter seniors and stepsiblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). The eccentrically lively Patrick is cheerfully gay while music-loving bosom buddy Sam is a one-time party girl who dates only men who hurt her. Both are outcasts with oddball friends that eager Charlie embraces. To a literal fault, they’re caring, sensitive, affluent teens who gush confused respect for each other and don’t understand why the world fails to appreciate their quirks. Depending on the moment, they conceal inner damage or wear it on their sleeves, another high school trademark.
Chbosy’s strength is his love of the clearly autobiographical material and his refusal to condescend to his bittersweet characters. Even better, the pre-text and mobile phone age lets looks and conversation flourish. On his island of teen misfit toys, all are true to themselves, no matter how awkward the (often sexual) dance steps. Sensitive Charlie falls for troubled Sam but Sam can’t save him. Gay Patrick is in love with football hero Brad but there’s no clean way out. Instead, love is compellingly messy, as is abuse, both evident and hidden.
“Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we’re nothing?” asks Sam. The answer is that they’re teens, and that for better or worse they can’t but honor the intensity of their seemingly “infinite,” music-powered feelings.