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.
The use of Heroes is probably one of my favorite uses of Bowie's music in a movie. Up there with Cat People in the Inglorious Basterds.ReplyDelete
By the way, I watched "This Is Not a Film" in March, I was underwhelmed, but always fun to compare notes, so I'll be back for that.
Chris, I agree about the "Heroes" scene, which is one of the great uses of pop music that I've seen in a movie in a while. I liked "This is Not a Film" overall, but I'm still trying to work out my thoughts on it to get the post written. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.Delete
"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 figure out about past artists."ReplyDelete
my wife and i had that same discussion. we did think it was odd that such music lovers couldn't identify david bowie within one verse, but whatever.
i did like this movie, but i had the same problem with it that i did with the book -- specifically the bizarre nature of charlie's past trauma. aside from being an incredibly rare circumstance, it is just so off-putting and out of left field that it totally derails the story. the movie also tries to put a happier ending to it, as from what i recall in the book, things don't go quite as well on his last night with emma watson's chaacter.
Joel, I took it as them being passionate about music but still finding all the great artists. Bowie is a pretty big miss, but I think it works in the pre-Internet age.Delete
You make a good point about the third-act surprises about Charlie's past. They telegraph it a little bit, but it's still pretty jarring. I haven't read the book yet, though I knew it was darker than what the trailer suggested. I didn't mind it and think it fit with the characters, but I can see how it could be a problem. I'm curious to read the book and see how it differed.
Chbosky has actually said that he and his friends only knew Bowie as the "Let's Dance" guy and didn't know much of his other stuff.Delete
Go do some research about woman-child sexual abuse, and about how children cope with traumatic events. It's not uncommon to find children being sexually abused by woman. In fact, it's just as common as men sexually abusing children, if not more so. It's also fairly common for children to suppress memories of traumatic events, because they don't have the coping skills yet that adults do to deal with them, and it is the only way their brains can think of to do it. It would make sense that Charlie is remembering these things as he is discovering his sexuality for the first time, because that type of event could (and did) trigger the suppressed memories.Delete
Rachel, your point makes sense given the placement of his memories coming after the last night with Charlie and Sam. I didn't have an issue with believing those scenes like I say in the post. However, I can see a viewer who followed the marketing being surprised by the direction of the movie. From a story perspective, Charlie's shift makes total sense given the traumatic abuse. However, I can concede that it may not work for everyone.Delete
Sexual abuse of boys by women is not nearly so rare as you seem to presume. I cannot add much to what Rachel had to say except this.Delete
As a target of sexual abuse by a female relative when I was a boy, I found the portrayal of Charlie's struggles uncomfortably, yet refreshingly familiar. The standard movie about teenagers portrays male victims of sexual abuse as lucky recipients of an education or fantasy fulfillment, usually by a "MILF" or some other physically attractive person, as though that makes it all just fine. As I read the book, at the time not knowing anything at all about the story other than my daughter told me it was good, the fact of what had taken place in Charlie's past slowly crept up on me, but I didn't realize this until after the "reveal." This is as it has been in real life for me and others I have contacted through support groups since becoming an adult, acknowledging the problem, and seeking counseling (at the age of 42). This trauma has always been with us, but we had been unable to identify it clearly until something slapped us in the face. My first sexual encounter in fact resulted in something very near what Charlie experienced. I was not hospitalized, because I hid what happened as best I could. Only my girlfriend understood something was wrong because she was the one who had to deal with a guy who spent an hour bawling uncontrollably and never telling her why after what she thought had been a really good day.
That Chbosky dared to explore this is, I believe, one of the main reasons the book has value at all. Otherwise it is simply yet another in a long line of standard "coming of age" stories that generally don't fit anyone's personal experiences and tend to serve as a sort of wish fulfillment. John Hughes gave me enough of that to last three lifetimes.
Thanks for the comment. I hope anything that I said in the review didn't dismiss your difficult past experiences. I'm very interested in checking out the book to learn how this was handled by the author and how it differed from the film.Delete
No, I didn't find you personally dismissive. It's a common misconception that I have chosen to address whenever I run across it. Saying something, even semi-anonymously, is a part of the recovery process.Delete
I will add agreement with many others that the book does handle the final "breaking point" moment better since it's not sanitized for a PG-13 audience. Frankly, I wish it hadn't been, but that would lead off on a rant about the MPAA that's probably best left for another time.
Good point about the PG-13 rating. It's actually impressive that they were able to even imply what they did given how the MPAA functions.Delete
A lot of the comments on various sites have been made regarding the plausibility of the characters not knowing about David Bowie's "Heroes". It was very plausible in the pre-internet/early days of the internet, I've just turned 30 and growing up I missed out on great music from the likes of Nirvana, to groups like Public Enemy etc, mainly because when these bands were at their peak I wasn't even in my teens, and by the time I hit 13/14 Nirvana were long gone and growing up in the UK, Britpop was taking off and I became a huge fan of Blur, Radiohead etc. I was a music nerd but I wouldn't have been able to name many Nirvana songs apart from Smells Like Teen Spirit, and I definitely would not have known about Heroes until the late 90s when file sharing took offReplyDelete
People really seem to underestimate how powerful the internet has been when it comes to broadening people's music tastes, there's so many artists I've discovered online before they became big stars, people like Kid Cudi and Frank Ocean spring to mind immediately who both delivered wonderful mixtapes and through buzz online built up huge fanbases before they had even released a proper record
I totally agree. I'm 37 and was in high school when the Internet didn't exist in its current form. I didn't even have an e-mail address until I was in college in 1994. Finding out about music was so different at that time. My older brother was really into a lot of bands, so that made a difference for me. Even so, there were still plenty that I knew little about until college or even later.Delete
It's such a different ballpark today. It used to take radio airplay or a review in a big publication for an artist to really break out. There was an underground scene, but it wasn't like with the artists you mentioned. Anyone can find out about unsigned bands who are just getting rolling with some Internet searches. That's an awesome benefit, but I do feel like something's been lost in the process.
Wonderful April Fool's joke. Very impressed.ReplyDelete
Thanks! Of course, I hate to burst your bubble...Delete
David Bowie - "Heroes".. Covered by "The Wallflowers" a bit later.ReplyDelete
I found that fantastic, if it was intentional
That's funny. I expect it's a coincidence, but it's cool regardless.Delete
I actually have been wanting to rent this just because it had Emma Watson in it, and grabbed it from Redbox today. Not knowing anything about the story I have to say I really enjoyed it a lot. If you liked this one you should check out It's Kind of a Funny Story, a movie I watched because Emma Roberts was in it and ended up enjoying it. Has the same feel as this movie kindaReplyDelete
I haven't seen It's Kind of a Funny Story yet but have heard good things. It has an interesting cast, and I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!Delete
Perks of Being a Wallflower is the worst movie I've ever seen.ReplyDelete
It's about an unlikeable loser kid completely devoid of personality and his inability to interact with anyone or anything. If that sounds like a good time to you, just wait till you meet the rest of the bunch!
There's Patrick. He looks like a mini post-crisis Michael Jackson and he's amiable enough, but his only defining characteristic is that he's gay. By the end of the movie, you won't be able to say anything else about his personality other than that he's gay. He's by far the most interesting character, because...
Meet Emma Watson, trying (and failing miserably) to mask her British accent while not having anything interesting to say. She gets drunk and sleeps with random guys (one can only assume many at once), and serves as the love interest of our wallflower.
We watch as these bland, tasteless characters do...absolutely nothing of interest or significance. Because our hero is so much of a lamer that he is literally incapable of action. For example, when a piglike punk-whore declares that they're now dating, our insipid hero is too thoughtless to tell her she's ugly or say no.
Somehow we're supposed believe that these kids, despite being horrendously dimwitted and zero-dimensional and having substance abuse issues, all make it into Ivy League schools. Okay, fine.
We're also supposed to swallow that our pale, limp-dicked hero can singlehandedly beat up two football players to protect his gay friend. Whatever.
The movie continues in this manner - boring, vapid characters continually making idiotic decisions and thus being unpitiable when the unbelievable, the insignificant, and the somewhat-bad-but-not-horrible happens to them. Note the passive, since they aren't actually doing anything themselves.
At the end of the movie, we come upon the realization that our main character was sexually abused by his aunt before she died, and somehow this justifies his complete lack of personality or original thought. Following his failed (of course, because he sucks at everything) suicide attempt, the film resolves in about five minutes with his recovery in therapy and a monologue plagiarized from a pre-teen's MySpace.
Perks of Being a Wallflower has 0 redeeming qualities. Emma Watson doesn't even look good with her short hair and awful half-accent, and knowing she regularly gets gangbanged by the football team, dates cheaters, and cheats on them too pushes her appeal-o-meter reading into the negatives.
The music was selected with wannabe-hipster pretension, with characters constantly remarking, "oh, that's GOOD music!" and "you like ?! you have GREAT taste!" Yet they can't recognize one of the most popular Bowie songs as it plays on pop radio while the main character voiceover-monologues, "We are infinite!" like it's supposed to be very profound.
We've talked about Emma Watson's surprisingly bad acting. Kid Michael Jackson actually gave a pretty good performance. However, in what has to be the least demanding role in filmdom, our main character isn't even convincing when staring impassively.
Please watch this movie so you can cultivate your appreciation of good movies (by contrast) and share in my miserable regret at wasting two hours of life spent watching the lifeless.
Thanks for the epic comment. While obviously I don't agree with you, I'll try to respond the best I can.Delete
First of all, I don't find the lead character to be a loser at all. When you consider the abuse that he faced as a child and the fact that his best friend committed suicide, he's doing okay. Even with his issues, he's still a likable guy who's trying his best to find his way in high school. There are plenty of kids who are socially awkward in school (I was), and calling him and his friends losers isn't accurate.
I think there's a lot more to Patrick than being gay. That's obviously a big part of his personality, but Ezra Miller makes him a three-dimensional character. The way he connects with his friends and welcomes Charlie shows that he recognizes another outsider. I also don't get the hate for Emma Watson. I don't think you're giving her a chance and again think her character's faults make her more interesting. She's hardly the perfect idealized girl that Charlie originally considers her. Also, she has problems from the past but is hardly the terrible character you describe.
You have to remember these are high schoolers! For them, they're still figuring out what music they like, and the songs are hardly "hipster" at all. "Come on Eileen" and "Don't Dream It Over" were very popular songs, and the Smiths have a huge following.
Also, using terms like "pig-like punk whore" shows that maybe you aren't being so open-minded with your movie watching. It's cool that you didn't like it, but calling it the worst movie ever seems like a major stretch.
Glad you liked this film. Everybody, I feel, can relate to it, no matter their background. I've seen it first hand amongst my group of friends.ReplyDelete
And if I could like a comment, I would so like your response to the previous poster. You're brilliant.
I agree. Even if you haven't experienced the same things as Charlie, there's a familiarity to so much of it. Glad you enjoyed the comment; the response to this post has been interesting.Delete
Great look at this one, Dan. I also really enjoyed the film overall. My biggest gripe was that the characters, who were so in tune with the music scene, didn't recognize "Heroes" on the radio, but after reading through these comments I guess I can see why. It was a great scene regardless of whether they should have known the song or not.ReplyDelete
Thanks Eric! I've been surprised by how many people were bothered by the "Heroes" scene, but I can understand it. I agree that it's a great moment regardless. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.Delete
Nice review Dan. I almost like how you handled all the comments even better though. LOL I bet this is a post you won't soon forget, huh? :DReplyDelete
Fogs, this has been quite an interesting experience for this post. My numbers look like a big triangle now, and the comments are definitely different than usual. I don't see this happening again soon, but it's been cool regardless. Thanks!Delete