The similarities between Adventureland and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are abundant and easily apparent. Each follows an adolescent male on the verge of adulthood – James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Charlie (Logan Lerman) respectively – who aspires to be a successful writer. Each combine the traditional “nerdy” traits of introspection, intelligence and awkwardness with easy handsomeness and a casual charm they themselves don’t yet understand.
Both films are set in the recent past – the ‘80s for Adventureland, the ‘90s for Wallflower – and use a soundtrack of period-appropriate pop tunes to ensure you don’t forget that fact. Each takes on a conventional narrative – a rite of passage type deal – the former over James’s summer break after graduating school, the latter over Charlie’s freshman year of high school. Both boys fall into new social circles, and each falls for a girl – Em (Kristen Stewart) and Sam (Emma Watson) – with questionable taste in men. They’re both wistful, often beautiful films that strive to capture the essence of adolescence.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a more ambitious film than Adventureland, interspersing its tale of teenage self-realisation with suicide, familial abuse (physical and sexual) and mental illness. The ambition of the film means many of its strongest moments are found in the margins. Charlie’s unappreciated first girlfriend (Mae Whitman) earns pathos despite being a good distance from the film’s centre, while the challenges faced by gay teen Patrick (Ezra Miller, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast), who’s equal parts tremendous and tormented, provide the film’s most powerful moments.
Adventureland is modest by comparison; where Wallflower accelerates through a dense plot, it ambles through a lazy summer. James works at the titular theme park, smokes some pot, goes to some parties, tries to find out who he is. And yet I found it the superior film of the two. Much of the credit goes to Eisenberg, who nimbly walks the line between new-found confidence and awkward self-awareness, perfectly characterising the difficulty of being “cool” as a teenager. Lerman, in contrast, delivers a performance that is simply adequate.
The real strengths of Adventureland come from its perspective. Wallflower strives to capture the transient nowness of youth – see the oft-quoted “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite” line – but its impact is dulled by a pervasive sense of nostalgia. For example, difficult moments – an attempted suicide, for example – are glossed over. It comes across as a thirty-something perspective on being teenager, which makes it harder to forgive Sam’s clichéd characterisation (she only dates assholes, she just needs a “nice guy” to set her free), a trope that would be defensible if it was solidly embedded in a male teen point-of-view.
This doesn’t scuttle the film by any means – it’s still a good film, and Patrick’s arc in particular is powerfully moving – but it leaves it at a disadvantage when compared to the insightful Adventureland. As you might have guessed from the title, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about how great and complicated and loveable quiet young men are; Adventureland has a more robust perspective, understanding that while “wallflowers” are often thoughtful and insightful, that doesn’t mean they can’t be thoughtless and oblivious at the same time.
Wallflower wants you to believe that every moment of teenage life is a stepping stone to greatness; Adventureland argues that sometimes a shitty summer job is just that. Count me in the latter camp.