Against all odds and certainly against the common practices of Hollywood, Stephen Chbosky has adapted his own wildly successful cult novel for the screen and then, truly remarkably, directed the film with sensitivity and style. (Chbosky is only the second in history to attempt this feat, preceded by author-turned-director Michael Crichton and his The Great Train Robbery, which was nowhere near as masterfully done as this.) The film opens like the book, as a letter written to a (possibly) imaginary friend. But Chbosky has the genius to abandon his own literary device when it might slow the narrative flow of his film. In the beginning, we see Charlie (Logan Lerman) writing about his scary first day of high school, hinting at some trauma that may just trump normal adolescent angst. But the letters are dropped when this miraculously rich and painful freshman year begins flowing into the stories of his wallflower circle of friends: Patrick (Ezra Miller), the gay friend in love with a closeted jock, and Sam (Emma Watson), that not so obscure object of Charlie’s battered teenage longing.
The best thing about the script, though streamlined of subplots that the book’s fans may miss, is its bold courting of disastrous youth quagmires and clichés and its surprising ability to dance off into nice surprises. Acts of kindness spring up alongside terribly painful stuff. Drugs figure strongly, too, but again Chbosky avoids the knee jerk. Charlie’s first pot brownie and, later, an acid trip, are sensationalistic on one hand, but free from preachiness on the other. Charlie is taking drugs while unraveling; in hammier hands this story would have become a cautionary sermon.
It’s not a perfect film — some of the lost plots, like Charlie’s friend’s mysterious suicide, seem confusingly glossed over. But the film does perfect service to the universal adolescent experience of dizzying alienation. Through melodrama, Chbosky connects and represents. You don’t have to be lost in a teenage wasteland to get this movie, but people who are will likely love it.