The Perks of being a Wallflower – my Valentine.
“Welcome to the island of misfit toys.”
The Perks of being a Wallflower moved me. There, I said it. I ignored an unfavourable review and criticisms about structure and “big print” dialogue made by someone I know, watched it yesterday, and had a satisfying experience. In fact, I wish this gently told, sensitive, subtly funny and compassionate film had come out when I was in high school, rather than American Pie ;P (I kid)
This is weird, because I don’t often like “teen” movies (other than John Hughes films, that is). It’s not that I don’t like films that fit into that genre – on the contrary, I adore coming-of-age films. However, high school films that actually bring some realism to them often provoke emotional responses in me that frankly I hate. They tap into pain memories, you see, without giving me some catharsis at the end of that.
My high school experience was unfathomably pain full – I had friends, I guess, but what was going on in my life and, in particular, my head, was so, so bad, so unhealthy, that I wagged huge stretches of school, took pills when I didn’t need to, and sometimes cried myself to sleep. I was terrified and lonely and felt like a freak.
And so every now and then, if I find myself going past a secondary school, I will irrationally feel a little queasy in my stomach (I often have the same feeling around hospitals). Additionally, any teen film or TV series that isn’t ridiculously overdone/a comedy/a musical/a comedic-musical, is usually a huge turn off.
Not so, with The Perks of being a Wallflower. This 2012 film is based on the coming-of-age epistolary novel of the same name, written by American novelist Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999 (again, I wish I had read this in high school – grade 9 could have been vastly improved. Think I read ‘So Much to Tell You’, though).
The film follows Charlie, an introverted American teenager going into his freshman year of high school. In the opening scene, Charlie is typing what appears to be a letter/a journal entry, which he begins with the salutation “Dear Friend”. What he writes, hints at Charlie’s troubled history.
When he begins high school, he finds it to be worse than middle school. The only connection he makes is with his ‘Advanced English’ teacher Mr Anderson. Despite Charlie’s reticence about expressing his mind verbally in class, Mr Anderson notices his intelligence, and as the film goes on he gives Charlie books to stoke his passion and talent for writing, and build his knowledge of literature.
Charlie’s luck changes when he finally makes a friend – actually two friends. He connects with senior students Patrick, a flamboyant class clown who has to take Charlie’s shop class, and his kind-hearted stepsister Sam, whom he falls for immediately.
When they discover that Charlie’s best friend committed suicide and that Charlie is isolated, they welcome him into their social group (because they aren’t assholes, like so many teens in films tend to be) – which includes the intellectually aggressive Mary Elizabeth, who awkwardly becomes Charlie’s first girlfriend (you’ll understand why I say ‘awkwardly’ if you watch the film).
I won’t say anything more about these characters, because any more details would inevitable be spoilers. I will say that Charlie, Patrick and Sam have very real issues, histories, and lives, and are beautifully portrayed by the actors – Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson (and I don’t care that they’re in their 20s and playing teenagers – they look the part, unlike some other 20-somethings-playing-teens).
As I said in the beginning, I like coming-of-age type films, so I don’t need a helluva lot of plot if I find the protagonist and a few other characters captivating – which I definitely did here. Seeing characters just figuring shit out about life and themselves can keep me interested for a while, especially if I empathise with the protagonist. Charlie has to deal with something by the end of this film: a dark wall needs to come down… it is the wall that made him sick. Logan Lerman’s expressive face made me want to see that happen.
In fact my only criticism (if you could call it that) would be that all three of them were too nice, and frankly I have never met teenagers that kind (I’m sure they exist though, I’ve just not met them). Having said that, Jack Wilson of The Age criticised the film in this review for what he deemed falseness, and shying away from any aspect of adolescent behaviour:
“The script is transparently fake at almost every moment, congratulating the gang on their non-conformity while soft-pedalling any aspect of adolescent behaviour – drug use, sex, profanity – that might upset the American mainstream.”
My oh my, how one thing can be interpreted and experienced so profoundly differently depending on the condition of the eyes (and mind, and soul) of the people viewing it. Because whilst I agree that misfits are all too often played by ridiculously “good-looking and poised” people, and that sometimes the dialogue was too “transparent”, I didn’t see the “congratulating” of non-conformity he identified – I saw teenagers self-consciously adopting “non-conformist” sub-cultural affectations to establish some early sense of individual and group identity, which does tend to happen at that age.
And I didn’t see “soft pedalling” of adolescent behaviour – I saw innocence colliding with “real world” issues like drug use, sexuality, homophobia, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental illness which, despite the blurry naïveté that overlays it all and permeates a lot of this film (which did not seem inappropriate to me, given the nature of the protagonist) also rang true (I was doing reckless adolescent shit and sleeping with a teddy bear. Sometimes the lines aren’t all that clear).
Most of all, I saw three characters coming to terms with a complex idea, simply articulated first by Mr Anderson, and repeated later by Charlie:
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Each of these characters are finding out what that means, for them – each one’s circumstances are different, but they are learning where lines need to be drawn and how to value themselves. That’s what this movie is about to me, and it also happens to be one of the big themes of this blog: learning how to love and accept yourself, so you can choose the best love for yourself in life. And accept no less than legitimate, equal, honest love.
All I ask for in a film, these days, is for a sensory/emotionally or intellectually satisfying experience. I want to be entertained or moved or, if I am lucky, both. Even with that as my standard, I am still frequently let down, depressed by brutal superficiality and the grey cynicism of too many filmmakers. Not so with Wallflower. It hit a nerve that hasn’t been hit in quite some time – but gave me some release at the end, too.
And now I’m looking forward to finally seeing Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln 🙂