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‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is coming of age classic, ‘Pitch Perfect’ out of tune, ‘Won’t Back Down’ wears sentimental heart on its sleeve

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Class is officially in session with three school related wide releases in theatres in this weekend. 

Photo: aidyreviews.net

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on the book by the same name, is one of those rare cinematic experiences that truly does its source material justice. Capturing a snapshot of the blistering beautiful experience known as high school, the movie wins on multiple levels.

For those who don’t know the story, Wallflower follows Charlie (Logan Lerman), a bruised teenager entering the jungle of high school with more than a little emotional damage. There he encounters the pixie-esque Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller), rebellious seniors who take the fledgling freshman under their wing and show him the ropes. Charlie narrates and documents his experiences with the notorious twosome, as life takes them all on a roller coaster with significant highs and sharp lows.

Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the novel, also adapted the screenplay and directed The Perks of Being A Wallfower. This tactic doesn’t always work (cough, Stephen King) but here the decision makes all of the difference. Sometimes the film literally feels like a book in motion as it drifts in and out of seasons and experiences, touching on issues like sexual abuse, identity, and first love among others.

Chbosky couldn’t have picked a better cast to inhabit his characters, each one pulling off a beautiful performance. Watson’s vulnerability is heartbreaking and Lerman’s quiet charm is undeniable. Special kudos to Ezra Miller though, who colors outside the box to give the audience so much more than a stock stereotype.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those movies that may go down a classic in the way it captures the teenage coming of age experience. It’s moving, nostalgic, wise, and always real.
Pitch Perfect photo: fanpop.com

 

Pitch Perfect, however, is pretty far on the other side of the spectrum. The bastard child of Glee and Bring it On, the film capitalizes on the current trend of the former, while trying to ape the formula that made the latter so successful. It winds up doing neither successfully. The film does feature a surprising Anna Kendrick (Anna, you’ve been nominated for Oscars, why are you in this?) as an “alternative” college kid hell bent on dropping out after freshman year to become a professional DJ.

While there, she is caught singing in the shower by Chloe (Brittany Snow), a member of the cult-ish acapella singing group The Bellas. You see, due to a freak accident the year before, the group lost all of their members, and are now desperate for fresh meat so that they can nab a trophy and re-establish themselves as aca-amazing.

The rest of the film follows The Bellas as they concoct an Island of Misfit “singers” to take on the corny boys a capella group, led by the smarmy Bumper (Adam DeVine) and adorable love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin). This could be a ripe set up for comedy, but the film merely shoves in one-note archetypes instead of characters (e.g. the butch lesbian, the overt slut). There are plenty of broad stale jokes too, including a vomit gag used not once, but twice to failed effect. Only Rebel Wilson, who is absolutely brilliant every time she enters the frame, brings the serious funnies.

The musical numbers would be the best part to Pitch Perfect, but even those come up lukewarm. The movie makes the strange decision to repeat the performance of a specific song repeatedly throughout so that it grows tiresome. The finale does manage to really raise the roof though, with a truly impressive blender of pop hits. Still, Pitch Perfect doesn’t get into the elite club that Clueless, Bring it On, and even Mean Girls established. Maybe try some auto-tune next time?

 

If you want subtly, don’t go see a movie called Won’t Back Down. If you, however, can successfully check your cynicism at the door, this inspiring drama has more than enough emotional punch for a dramatic evening at the movies.

Won’t Back Down is very loosely based on a law passed in California that, simplified, can provide teachers and parents the opportunity to start their own school when the systems fails them. Yes, the notion may sound absurd, but not so to Jamie (a wide eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal) a struggling mother who is desperately trying to get her dyslexic daughter the learning help she needs. When Jamie crosses paths with Nona (Viola Davis), a teacher whose early fire has burnt out in a big way, she recruits her to take over the failing school and start their own.


The film is far from perfect, but it certainly has two outstanding performances at the core. Gyllenhaal is a frenzy of energy and conviction as Jamie, literally bouncing all over the screen at exhausting levels (while retaining great skin tone). Davis embodies a broken woman who once believed in the profession, and still has the drive inside to believe in it once again. Davis cranks up her performance slower than Gyllenhaal, who is a fireball out of the gate. Make no mistake though; when she finally lets loose, the result is just as powerful.

In the end, Won’t Back Down loses major points for its sledgehammer approach, not to mention its sometimes preachy anti-union attitude. There’s also a silly subplot with Holly Hunter that has an eye-rolling payoff. That said, the film has a decent message, a few big heart-tugging moments, and two acting pros leading the charge to educational revolution.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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Perks photo: aidyreviews.net

Pitch Perfect: fanpop.com