Lost & Found
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photography by Kai Z Feng
Styling by Grant Woolhead
There are certain pieces of adolescent mythology that can almost become a necessity, like a lifeline for a kid,” Ezra Miller says. “Perks was that for me.”
Perks is how kids like Miller, wounded teens who barely made it out of high school alive, refer to their tattered copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a novel about Charlie, an achingly lost and lonely high-school freshman and the older band of outsiders -- —Sam, the out-of-his-league girl, and her confident gay stepbrother, Patrick -- who help save him.
To a decade’s outcasts, Perks belongs on a shelf next to The Catcher in the Rye. It pays tribute to that classic indictment of adult hypocrisy, but also tells an updated, unflinching, uncensored story about how many childhoods were not so much the setting of a happy home video as they were fodder for a future PostSecret confession.
“I read this book when I was Charlie’s age,” says Miller. Two older friends who lived down the block from him in Maplewood, N.J., insisted on it. “One said, ‘This is my favorite book.’ The other said, ‘This book saved my life.’ So I read it and I found one of the best mythological maps for being a fucked-up kid.”
That kind of emphatic, evangelical endorsement is how a book like Perks, written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999 by MTV Books, ended up being passed around from kid to kid and selling more than a million copies. It’s still one of the most banned books in America, which only serves to heighten its appeal.
The film adaptation -- starring Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Greg Berlanti’s Jack & Bobby) as Charlie and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson as Sam -- hits theaters this month, with a screenplay written and directed by Chbosky.
Five years after finding solace in the character of Charlie, Miller -- who is now on the cusp of turning 20 and finally, officially, graduating from his own teenage years -- plays Patrick with a beautiful, transcendent self-assurance that recalls the sensitive bravado of a young Johnny Depp. Best known as Tilda Swinton’s sociopath son in 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miller turns the role of Patrick into a defiantly optimistic new queer role model.
“I needed Patrick in my life,” says Chbosky, who was 26 when he wrote Perks. “I needed a person who was OK with himself. I looked up to Ferris Bueller because he didn’t seem to be plagued with the insecurities that plagued me. And then—because I did the movie much later, when I was not as crazy—I recognized that Patrick had become something of an iconic character.”
When Miller found the script for Perks at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, “I picked it up and threw it against the wall, then I kicked it and spat on it -- because I was furious that somebody, some idiot somewhere was trying to ruin a great piece of literature.” Then he found out it was Chbosky’s project: “It was no longer Hollywood eating another thing we love. It was maybe a chance for Perks to become a bigger, friendlier, more helpful monster.”
He also realized it was time to stop thinking of himself as Charlie. “Here I am, the age that my friends were when they were recommending the book to me.” As the de facto leader of the school’s “antipack pack,” as Miller calls it, Patrick shows Charlie how to be himself amidst the bullies instead of just standing on the sidelines.
“Top to bottom, I wanted to make a movie where Patrick was the coolest kid—the most self-assured, the least haunted,” Chbosky says. “God knows he has some problems”—the only secret Patrick keeps is that he’s sleeping with the closeted quarterback, Brad—“but you know that he’s going to be OK. If you’re a gay kid and you’re looking for role models like everybody else, there he is. There’s no victim here. And if you’re a straight kid, you’re just going to love Patrick because he’s cool.”
In Perks, after Brad (Johnny Simmons) is savagely beaten by his father when he catches him with Patrick, a forlorn Patrick drunkenly kisses Charlie. Rather than the tired trope of an offended, disgusted reaction, Charlie just hugs Patrick sweetly, with unconditional reassurance.
“Of course there’s nothing wrong with it,” says Chbosky, who says the scene -- and much of both Patrick’s and Brad’s characters -- was inspired by his best friend at college. “Even though I’m a straight guy, I’d always had a real kinship with all of my gay friends.”