In high school movies, everyone is looking for someone to date; friendship is what's taken for granted. (Even the nerds have it.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a graceful and beguiling drama adapted from Stephen Chbosky's 1999 novel (Chbosky wrote and directed the film himself), gently flips that pattern on its head. It's set in 1991 in a tranquil section of Pittsburgh, where Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman who has spent time in a mental ward, is quiet and shy mostly because he's frightened of how precocious he is. He falls in with a clique of smart kids, most of whom are seniors, and though he thinks he's in love with the no- nonsense Sam (Emma Watson), the drama isn't in whether they become an item. It's in watching Charlie snap out of his wallflower cocoon by waking up to the real romance in his life: the one with his newfound chums.
Along with Sam, those friends include Patrick, a kind of teenage Oscar Wilde played by the mesmerizing Ezra Miller, and Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a punkette feminist whom Charlie starts to go out with after she practically ravishes him. The movie is tough-minded: It zeroes in on Patrick's anger at dating a closeted football star, and it doesn't let Charlie off the hook for his cruelty or self-pity. Yet Perks also finds an original and lovely nostalgia in wised-up kids from the '90s going to see Rocky Horror, or standing up in the back of a pickup truck as it zooms through a tunnel blaring David Bowie's "Heroes," a song that the movie turns into an ecstatic expression of the beautiful solidarity of youth. A