In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s legacy is like the tunnel that booksends its cinematic rendering: a warmly lit, strangely mystical-feeling portal. Nestled in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the highway underpass opens the coming-of-age film, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, and serves as the setting for its most ethereal sequence. In its final moments, Logan Lerman‘s Charlies through that same tunnel, arms outstretched into the air, mus that one day his adolescence will inevitably race away, but for now, “We are infinite.”
A decade later, the cult-classic film that Stephen Chbosky adapted and directed from his own 1999 debut novel feels like less of an old photograph and more…you know. “It’s always present to me,” he tells Vanity Fair. “Not a week goes by when I don’t talk to some young person or get a letter or a phone call or email from somebody who was very moved by it.”
And although his world-weary protagonist, Charlie, warns that there “are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17,” Chbosky, now 52, is not among them. “I am one of those who did not forget what it was like to be young,” he says wistfully. “And as the years go on, I find myself remembering even more.”
He is, however, the first to admit that “becoming somebody’s dad” (his first child was born the same year as perks’ release) has shifted his perspective on the story’s more distressing subject matter, including suicide and childhood sexual abuse. “I’m grateful that I made the movie before I had children,” Chbosky says. “I find some of the more difficult things that the kids go through far more painful to watch as a parent of children than a young person myself. I would’ve pulled some punches, had I made it later, because it would’ve been too difficult to watch people you love go through difficult things.” He adds, “In life we can’t control that, but in art we can.”
Undoubtedly beyond Chbosky’s power is the alleged misconduct of Ezra Miller, who brought eccentric high school student Patrick (alongside a post–Harry Potter Emma Watson as his soulful step sister Sam), from page to screen. In 2022, to watch Miller’s performance her as an outwardly charismatic, inwardly tormented teenager is to witness a star-making turn—Zack Snyder was convinced to cast Miller in The Flash off of perks—but it’s also unavoidably complicated given the actor’s alleged misdeeds and troubled public image in recent years.
Chbosky, who spoke about Miller ahead of VF‘s latest reporting on them, hasn’t had much contact with the now 29-year-old since perks. “I guarantee you, you personally know a lot more about Ezra Miller these days than I do,” he insists. But the filmmaker can’t help but speak about the embattled star using the same kind of earnest reverence with which he gifts his characters dele. “I hope Ezra finds the light that they shined so brightly back when we shot the film, because the kid I met was a remarkably magical person,” Chbosky says. “And I always like to believe that person is always in there and I hope that they can find the help that they need.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Chbosky talks to VF about how The Perks of Being a Wallflower—an intimate indie with modest box office returns despite its glowing critical reception—has enjoyed a pop culture legacy far longer than the fleeting teenage season it chronicled.
Vanity Fair: What was your biggest fear about adapting your own work?
Stephen Chbosky: I don’t know if I had fears about adapting it, but I did feel an enormous responsibility. When I was writing the book back in New York in my twenties, it was just for me, but once I published it and heard from all the young people, I realized that it had gone far beyond me and that it meant a lot to a lot of really, really great people. I felt a responsibility to make a wonderful movie for them as much as for myself, but it wasn’t fear. It was more of a joy.
I just felt like I wanted to protect this and support it. Considering that I had so many offers over the years to sell the book to Hollywood and I turned it down time and time and time again, I just wanted to wait until I was ready with the tools to tell the story the right way. And when I look back on the amazing cast, that time when I made the film, I think the movie gods were smiling on me and that some things were really worth the wait.