Introspective Charlie (Logan Lerman, "Percy Jackson & The Olympians") is a Pittsburgh teen about to enter high school. He's a bit of a mess -- oversensitive, on antidepressants after his best friend's suicide, and still grieving his favorite aunt's fatal car crash 10 years earlier. He's got a solid family (headed by Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh), but the next four years look dismal. Picked on and rejected, he copes like a convict, counting down the days until he graduates.

Then he's befriended by quirky, fun-loving stepsibling seniors Sam (Emma Watson, radiant) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"). Soon the trio is whooping it up as Patrick zooms his pickup through the endless Fort Pitt tunnel, blasting Bowie on the cassette deck. Unexpectedly, life begins to feel infinite.

Coming of age in the early '90s, before the Internet made aloneness a different proposition, Charlie writes emotionally naked letters to an unnamed pen pal. His muse, Sam, and wiseguy mentor, Patrick, bathe Charlie in the sunlight he needs to bloom.

Stephen Chbosky's script is insightful about the exhilaration of soul-piercing first love, and the misery of being swept into a relationship with someone who's forceful, determined and utterly wrong for you.

The period setting also raises the stakes for Patrick, who is comfortable about his gay sexuality long before his sometimes cruel peers.

Adapted by Chbosky from his well-loved novel, "Perks" has the authenticity of memoir and the artistry of well-crafted fiction. Lively, tender and evocative, it rides the emotional whitewater of adolescence without being swept away into schmaltz.

The period details are spot-on, counterbalancing passages of confusion and misery with fondly remembered details of mix tapes, "Rocky Horror Picture Show" screenings and leather-sleeved letter jackets. A beautifully acted, intelligent, warmly rendered trip down nostalgia lane.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • On Twitter: @colincovert