Something interesting occurred to me last night while I was watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If the world — particularly the United States, with its gun-wielding citizenry — can get it together and protect its younger generation, one of the biggest beneficiaries might be cinema. In fact, we could even end up on the cusp of another golden age of film.
Think about all the great talent showcased in movies this year that was born after the 1980s, which, incidentally, is around the time in which Perks is set. I can’t think of another year in recent memory, if ever, when there’s been so much standout and breakthrough 22-and-under talent in so many films.
Jennifer Lawrence is only 22, and the soon-to-be two-time Oscar nominee is a frontrunner for Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. And that may have been the lesser of her 2012 triumphs. She also headlined The Hunger Games, a blockbuster franchise-to-be that guarantees we’ll be seeing her onscreen for years to come, right alongside her costar Josh Hutcherson, 20, who I knew was on the verge ever since he convinced me that he actually could be Mark Ruffalo’s son in The Kids Are All Right.
The kids in Moonrise Kingdom are more than alright. Jared Gilman, 13, and Kara Hayward, 14, carry the film and retain its spotlight, even with such legendary screen vets as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton threatening to steal it.
Armand Verdure, the 5-year-old son in Rust and Bone, doesn’t have many lines, and they’re all in French, but his sad eyes say so much. So do Quvenzhané Wallis‘s. If the now-9-year-old actress had just narrated Beasts of the Southern Wild and appeared in it without saying a word, her performance would be just as impressive. I haven’t yet seen The Impossible (for which I predict Naomi Watts will be Oscar’s surprise Best Actress spoiler), but 16-year-old Tom Holland has accomplished the seemingly impossible by garnering more Oscar buzz than the film’s other male lead, Ewan McGregor.And Best Picture contender Life of Pi is headlined by 19-year-old Suraj Sharma and a Bengal tiger.
Which brings us to the stars of Perks. Daniel Radcliffe has already proven to be a formidable talent both onstage and onscreen, and now Emma Watson, 22, seems dead set on ensuring that the Harry Potter franchise produces at least two young stars with career longevity. She was unfortunately underused in last year’s My Week with Marilyn, so it’s nice to see her getting something substantial to do here.
Few actresses can pack so many distinct, and at times, contradictory, characteristics — awkward, poised, pretentious, nurturing, virginal and nubile — into a supporting character. Her American accent is occasionally shaky, but the hard fall that Sam (Logan Lerman) takes for her is believable as much for of the way Watson plays Sam as for the way Lerman plays smitten.
Meanwhile, Ezra Miller, 20, delivers on the promise of last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. His gay character Patrick is comfortable with his sexuality yet terrified of it, too. He’s this intriguing mix of extreme confidence and equally extreme insecurity, a gay teen who’s out and proud without waving a rainbow flag from the rooftop. It’s a multi-dimensional version of gay youth that we don’t often see in TV or in film and one of the most honest, realistic depictions of what it feels like for a gay boy that I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.
Good as Watson and Miller are, the film’s true standout is Logan Lerman, 20, who anchors a boy-girl-boy threesome that’s far more interesting than the one in On the Road, whose lead, like Sam, is also a writer. Though he’s nominated for a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award in the Best Young Actor/Actress category (alongside Wallis, Holland, Hayward, Sharma, and Ginger & Rosa‘s Elle Fanning, 14), if Lerman hasn’t gotten as much attention as Watson and Miller, it’s probably because as the top-billed lead, he has to compete with leading men in that particular running who are two and three times his age. Historically, Hollywood — and by extension, Oscar — has been more generous when bestowing praise on female leads who still haven’t reached driving age than with their male counterparts.
Even if you were never a misfit or never went through your young life carrying a deep dark secret, you might still relate to Lerman’s Charlie. His is a delicate yet tough performance that never falls into the typical stereotypes of the outcast high schooler who has to fend for himself. He makes Charlie universal, representative of youthful uncertainty, not being sure where you fit in and what your short past means for the long future ahead of you. He has several big emotional scenes, but it’s the ones where he just watches, quietly observing, that are most affecting.
Perks offers a portrait of lost desolate youth that not only made me remember my own in painfully vivid detail, but in some strange subversive way, made me long for it, too. Instead of wishing it away, I should have documented it, the way Charlie does. But more than anything, I regret not negotiating it with the awkward grace that Lerman gives to Charlie. It’s not just a performance to impress grown ups, but one we can learn from, too.