Looking at the primary-coloured posters pasted around town for this tender-hearted teen drama, you might conclude that the chief perk of being a wallflower (a list many of us know from experience is not a long one) is being very pretty indeed. Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller stare at us with magazine-ready faces unblemished by acne, wearing artfully dishevelled hipster garb. If they’re struggling to get noticed at school, they could always try their chances with an elite modelling agency.
So it’s to the credit of this gentle, plainly personal debut from writer-director Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own popular 1999 youth novel, that we’re on the kids’ side from the get-go. The wallflower is Lerman’s Charlie, a bright but paralysingly shy bookworm just beginning high school in suburban Pittsburgh. No prizes for guessing that the only ally he finds in his first weeks is his kindly English teacher (Paul Rudd), though as Chbosky unpacks the character in slightly ungainly flashbacks, we learn there’s greater trauma behind his social ineptitude than standard teen insecurities.
When Charlie does make friends, it’s by inverting the standard high school hierarchy. Two Smiths-loving senior-year rebels take him under their wing: sarky gay misfit Patrick (Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Watson), a manic-pixie-dreamgirl type with whom the younger boy inevitably falls secretly, if none-too-subtly, in love. You can mostly guess where it goes from there, though its psychological troughs are darker than most. And setting proceedings in 1991 keeps things appealingly analogue, even if its period details are curiously inconsistent: for one thing, this allegedly music-mad trio fill mixtapes with Shaggs B-sides, but have apparently never heard of David Bowie.
Chbosky’s direction can be as awkward as his protagonist while he negotiates tricky breaks in tone and structure. But that inexperience in itself lends an irresistible guilelessness to this adolescent love letter, as do the delicate performances from its adorable ensemble. Watson holds her own with a character more annoying on paper than in reality, but it’s the boys who most impress: a waxy whippersnapper in previous films, Lerman (best known as Percy in 2009’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief) sweetly conveys that self-indulgent teenage state when your feelings are bigger and newer than any felt by anyone before. Miller, meanwhile, is sufficiently gangly and endearing to convince us that his somewhat less perky wallflower in last year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin was just an act.