The concept of high school being the “best years of our lives” has been demystified, but the nostalgia for this time remains in plenty of our hearts. I don’t share this fierce longing and have mixed feelings about the experience. There wasn’t any huge trauma involved, but it drifted by without that much excitement. I was just there, hanging in the background while others were clearly having a blast. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower shows the difficulties for a damaged freshman boy, but it also recognizes the uncertainty that most of us faced when entering this scary new realm. I can identify with going to a football game and hoping desperately to see a familiar face or standing at a dance trying to get the courage to move. These moments are presented brilliantly in this film, which shows how the love of a small group of friends can make all the difference. Based on Chbosky’s beloved 1999 novel, this warm adaptation presents an individual story yet captures the essence of teenage life. Although my background is different, I connected strongly with this convincing look at taking the first steps towards adulthood.
What's this story about?
Charlie (Logan Lerman) arrives in high school just trying to survive the horrifying new experience. He had an awful time in middle school and is struggling to cope with several past traumatic events. His fortunes change when he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), seniors who take him under their wing. Charlie is thrilled by the new experiences and falls hard for Sam. His demons are still there, but he’s able to keep them at bay while having a blast with his new friends. Going to parties, experiencing romance, and just spending time with his new friends changes his outlook forever. The question is whether his salvation is permanent or just a brief respite from the next downward spiral.
How is the main character an outsider?
Charlie is shy and lacks confidence, but that’s only part of the challenge. He’s Catholic and faces the guilt from awful circumstances from his childhood. If that wasn’t enough, his best friend committed suicide the previous year. One of these events is enough to push someone over the edge, but the combination is even more difficult. Friends from middle school have put him aside for greener social pastures, and he’s left on an island. The high-school class system dismisses anyone who seems different, and Charlie has nowhere to turn. Logan Lerman does a great job showing his desire to make any connection. When Patrick and Sam accept him, it’s life-affirming and changes his entire perspective. He’s no longer a loner feeling sorry for himself and has joined the “island of misfit toys”. These are fun, accepting seniors who think he’s cool! Patrick and Sam are facing their own demons, and they recognize a kindred soul who desperately needs them. They also truly like the guy and make him feel wanted, despite his damaged psyche.
What external forces (if any) have created this isolation?
A key presence in Charlie’s past is his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), who appears kind but played a nastier role. His sadness about her seems caused by her tragic death, but there’s more to the story. Even his well-meaning parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) don’t know what happened. His older sister Candace (Nina Dobrey) also cares for him but is dealing with her own problems with an abusive boyfriend. Thankfully, Charlie discovers an encouraging presence with English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). His passion is writing, and it’s so pivotal to have a mentor who directs him to classic authors. Rudd does a good job as a teacher who recognizes something different in Charlie. Sam also pushes him to write and gives a wonderful gift of a typewriter at Christmas. Typing “write about us” onto the page, she provides just the right inspiration. It’s a charming scene that never feels too precious because the actors sell the connection. The typewriter helps to keep his thoughts in focus and gives Charlie an outlet to push the monsters into the background.
Do the situations feel authentic and natural for the environment?
This story takes place in the early ‘90s, so the music and styles reflect that time period. There’s nostalgia for that time, but it never gets in the way of the characters. Chbosky wisely doesn’t just focus on prominent songs from that era and goes back to ‘80s classics like “Come on Eileen” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. He also pulls iconic tracks like Cracker’s “Low” and L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” that place us right in that time. It’s a tricky balance for the first-time director who wants to deliver authenticity without going overboard. Another interesting facet is the shared bond of discovering music through mix tapes, which is a lost art. When Sam hears David Bowie’s “Heroes” on the radio for the first time, it’s a transcendent moment. She stands in the trailer of their truck and reaches for the sky while Bowie’s “We can be heroes, just for one day” blares over the speakers. It’s a remarkable sequence and has extra relevance since they don’t even know the song. Without easy access to the Internet, the characters are sent on journeys of discovery to find past artists. While we’ve gained plenty today, we’ve lost some of the intellectual curiosity because of this easy access. Chbosky captures a time just before the rise of the iPod where a mix tape meant a lot more than just passing along some new music.
What themes are being tackled by the director with these outsiders?
Chbosky is covering heavy subjects that may surprise viewers expecting a more upbeat look at teenage life. The Perks at Being a Wallflower is a rare film that’s able to tackle this material yet rarely feel gloomy. There are so many stunning moments of grace and joy that counteract the sorrow. Chbosky has great allies in Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller as the leading trio. Miller is surprising as an openly homosexual teen with so much life. Patrick’s in a relationship with a popular jock who isn’t so comfortable with his sexuality. Watson matches this brilliance and makes it easy to realize why Charlie would fall for her. Their first kiss is another poignant moment that provides charm without going over the top. This is such an engaging film and would have been near the top of my year-end list if I’d seen it earlier. I loved it from start to finish and can’t wait to see it again.
Next week, I'll head to Iran and find out why This Is Not a Film.