dir: Steven Chbosky
I’m a romantic, but I’m also fairly cynical. I watch a lot of movies, a hell of a lot, as you can probably see from just scrolling down a bit. Most movies don’t move me. Most movies provoke little more than mild interest while their playing, and I sometimes get that curious sensation of walking out of a cinema or pressing stop on the Blu-Ray player or switching cable channels, and being unable to remember, for the life of me, what I just watched.
Few movies move me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower moved me, a lot.
Why do they keep making films and television shows about high school, about coming of age? Because those of us who survive it remember it our whole lives, and we’re always hoping for some way to go back and get it right.
My heart was breaking for Charlie (Logan Lerman) within minutes of the film starting, and then, for the rest of its duration, it kept rebuilding that heart meticulously before smashing it again and again. I felt so much for this character that I started finding it absurd that I was so moved by it.
I’m not so easily moved to tears, but some elements of the human condition appeal to me endlessly, and always will, I hope. Charlie is about to start high school in Pittsburgh, I think, in the early 90s, and he’s dreading it. He has a number of reasons, the main one being that he’s a wallflower, someone who feels they are perpetually on the outside, looking in.
He is terrified of spending school, the rest of his schooling, alone, and calculates the days remaining. As in, the days left until he can go to college.
To him, it looks like everyone else makes friendships effortlessly. They’re always laughing (other people are always happy when you’re stuck in this amber of social anxiety), and the majority of his interactions are with bullies, who don’t even have the decency to put any effort into their bored cruelties. They act as they act because school is an ecology and a hierarchy, and teenagers, after all, are the most conformist creatures of all, rarely rejecting the pushes and pulls they feel.
That’s not a fair thing to say, they’re all different, most of them are decent people already, but for many they have a long way to go before getting there, if at all. Charlie is a sweet kid, which makes his disaffection and his isolation all the more painful. There are people who should be outsiders, and isolated, because they’re horrible shitty people who bring misery to everyone near them, whereas Charlie is alone because he’s shy, sensitive, desperate, and all the other kids can smell it on him, and mock him for it.
He just longs, longs for friendship, for connection with the kids around him. Something like this has to be delicately done to avoid being mawkish or making the protagonist seem like a self-centred jerk, and the film manages that throughout. I would expect that the director ‘gets’ how important it is to tell Charlie’s story properly, since the same chap who wrote the novel directed the flick, and did a tremendous job sensitively bringing it to life.
The kids in these kinds of flicks have a tendency to just seem like stereotypes, and many of the kids seem to here as well, since what other impressions are we going to have of a bunch of conformist teenagers we don’t know at all? We’ll judge them by their clique, by their phylum, by their genus, and then see if they have any identifying characteristics to separate them from the herd.
That was around the time when I was, momentarily, taken outside of the flick, looking at it from the perspective of it being the perfect distillation of the 1980s Brat Pack movies John Hughes was often guilty of, you know, like Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles and the like. There have been a million coming of age high school flicks and telly series, and it was hard to see what set Perks of Being a Wallflower apart.
Once the characters started to coalesce, and I really, really listened to what was being said in the dialogue, which is far better than the dialogue those flicks ever had, that’s when it all worked, and took my breath away.
Charlie’s parents give the well meaning advice all clueless parents give their offspring who suffer from crippling shyness and self-consciousness, and none of it helps, but at least Charlie has decent parents and a stable home life. He has an older sister, who I guess is nice enough, but even she won’t let him have lunch with her, lunch being the prime public determinant of social standing.
He makes ‘friends’ with a teacher (Paul Rudd), who sees the keen intelligence and hunger for knowledge and feeling Charlie possesses, but, you know, what’s a sympathetic teacher who gives you all his great books to read and enjoy, and encourages you to be a writer with support and constructive criticism because he sees the talent in you worth when none of the other kids will let you play with them? Nothing, less than nothing at first.
But hark! He hits upon the perfectly awkward strategy of going to a football game, and just flat out pretending to be part of the group until he becomes part of the group. And as luck would have it, mercifully, it works. He accidentally ingratiates himself with another boy called Patrick (Ezra Miller), and that leads to connections with other older kids, especially Patrick’s half-sister Sam (Emma Watson).
They eventually bring him into a group of friends, Sam jokingly calling one of their get togethers as the Island of Misfit Toys. Charlie is ever so grateful, ever so thankful. He now has people to talk to, people to listen to, people to care about so he doesn’t feel so fucking alone in the world. And as he gets closer with them, he gets to see something beyond dreading the next couple of years of his life. He actually has something to look forward to, even love.
With other kinds of stories, that’s where it would end, I guess. But this isn’t a feel-good story, nor is it a cautionary tale, nor is it about the redemptive power of love and the pursuit of that one ‘thing’ that makes everything else all right. Charlie is a sweet guy, but he is deeply fucked up. Terrible things have happened in his life, terrible things, and a few months of friendship doesn’t quite wipe the slate clean and let us start again. Also, because he’s still a boy, and one who hasn’t had enough time yet to evolve into a social being that understands how people should act with each other as a participant (as opposed to his perpetual observer status), of course he’s going to fuck things up.
Didn’t we all?
The two most important people in his life, in his universe, are Patrick and Sam, but they are objectified by Charlie, but not by the film. Patrick is a somewhat flamboyant and exuberant boy, whose passionate love affair with a fellow male student isn’t the defining factor about him (though the dressing up as Frank-n-Furter kind of transports any closet he might want to hide out in, into the realms of doubtful utility). He is the one, who observes the observer, and tells him he’s being observed, celebrates him for it.
The slings and arrows of high school, well, most of them at least, he can laugh off, because he can convincingly not care. He doesn’t define himself by the limitations of the other kids who might be hostile to him, because what’s the sense in that? Ezra Miller playing this character is as charming and sympathetic here as he was chilling and horrifying in We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s a performance at the absolute other end of the human spectrum.
And as for Patrick’s sister Sam, ah, Sam. Emma Watson assays a flawless American accent, which helps, but even more so she helps the story and character by bringing an incredible warmth to her character. Of course Charlie is compelled to put her up on a pedestal so high no person can survive up in that stratosphere, but she keeps trying to remind him that she’s a real girl, one who’s life is no more perfect or past-exempt that his own. Plus, how much does anyone really want to be the object of someone’s unrequited crush. Where’s the fun in that, for any of the people concerned?
The scene they share at the Christmas party where she enquires as to his first kiss, and relates the tale of her own disturbing first one, and what comes after, could not have been more exquisitely sweet, more perfect. Fundamentally impossible in this universe to have gotten it more right.
The genuine sweetness of these moments, the tremendously affecting tunnel scenes in the pick-up truck, especially the last one, aren’t enough to dull the ugliness, the darkness that threatens at the edges of Charlie’s world, but they do allow us to retain hope enough that he’ll get through it, that they all will. This story is a coming of age story, and, like all of the decent ones, it reminds us of the joy and the pain as well, overwhelming though they may be.
Just get through it, it makes me want to beg the teenagers of the world, just live long enough to define yourself away from your many hurts and horrors, the boredom and the lack of feeling real, the lack of being seen for who you really are and can be. It’s so much better than the alternative, because there’s fucking nothing if you pull the plug, just misery for the ones you leave behind.
How did this film capture the yearning for life and love so sweetly, for me, at least? I don’t know, but it’s definitely one of the most beautiful yet messy things I’ve seen all year, and it left me feeling joyous in the end.
I can’t ask for more than that.
9 times I wish I’d seen this flick when I was at that agonising age out of 10
And in that moment, I swear we were infinite. – The Perks of Being a Wallflower