Coming-of-age movies live or die by their protagonists, and Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own semiautobiographical novel has a central character that reads like a typical misfit dream teen. You know the type: smart but too socially withdrawn to speak in class, nerdy but into cool shit like the Smiths and The Catcher in the Rye, misunderstood but destined for greatness one day. That’s Chbosky avatar Charlie in a nutshell, and as played by Logan Lerman, this wallflower comes remarkably close to actually blooming. Best known as the screen embodiment of YA-lit do-gooder Percy Jackson, the young actor employs guileless looks and a sense of muted giddiness to transmit Charlie’s tiny triumphs—especially when he befriends a flamboyant rebel (Ezra Miller) and his half sister (Emma Watson of the Harry Potter films, whose presence suggests an alt-universe where Rick Riordan’s hero hooks up with Hermione Granger).
Lerman’s performance and a soundtrack that’s an early-’90s college-rock programmer’s wet dream (Sonic Youth! Cocteau Twins! XTC!) go a long way toward distinguishing this tour of freaks-and-geeks angst. The rest of the film, however, seems hellbent on erasing any sense of originality, as every item on the coming-of-age–cinema checklist gets ticked off: closeted gay athletes, kind English teachers, suicide attempts, broken hearts, bad drug trips, anger issues, abuse, and for good measure, a nervous breakdown. You can feel Chbosky’s blood, sweat and tears oozing out of this highly personal project, but that holy trinity of fluids isn’t enough to wash away the sense that you’ve seen this before—many, many, many times.
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