“You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the book, was written by American author Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the film, was written and directed by American author and director Stephen Chbosky. Here we have the wettest of wet dreams for any literature/film lover, the ultimate prize: an author actually directing their own story. I still can’t believe it, myself. The story is one we think we know quite well. Logan Lerman plays protagonist Charlie, an introverted teenager who begins his freshman year of high school burdened with his ambiguous past, but hopeful for a new start. (Spoilers)
The film begins with Charlie anonymously writing a letter to an unidentified source. While this theme doesn’t continue on as consistently as it should, the viewer gets the feeling that these letters are the framework in which the story is being told. Charlie’s first connection is with his English teacher, Bill, played by Paul Rudd. Here, literature becomes an important theme, and one the continues throughout the film. Bill begins to give Charlie books outside of class assignments, on which Charlie writes essays. Some of these books were classics like, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and finally J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Ryewhich Bill gives to Henry to keep.
As relationships to adults in this film go, this particular one is the brightest and most benevolent, and it is offset by rather morose ones. Paul Rudd is believable, and as usual makes a remarkable and very fluid transition from comedy to drama. There was a very nice intellectual and cultural element to the film. Other than the numerous references to famous literary idols, music was rather significant. The Smiths in particular connected Sam and Charlie. They even get into some culty stuff with Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don’t know about you all, but I wish my friend and I would have put on lip-syncing productions of Rocky Horror in high school. For those of us who love Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Rocky Horror, and The Smiths, you will feel a tinge of satisfaction from all the scenes these things are celebrated in.
Sam: Welcome to the island of misfit toys.
The performances from the younger actors in this film were something of great fascination. After a brief interaction at a football game Charlie gets sucked into a whirlwind of teenage whimsy and happenstance with the flamboyantly gay Patrick (played by Ezra Miller) and the luminescent Sam (played by Emma Watson). The introduction of these characters prompts a boost in the film’s tempo and provokes a rapidly evolving chain of events that
eventually leads to revelatory events and confessions. The characters of Patrick and Sam, who are step-siblings, are crucial to Charlie’s growth, and, interestingly enough, his eventual unraveling. Ezra Miller, unknown to most audiences, gave a surprisingly emotional performance. Melancholy is something that most actors are trained to relate, but Patrick is a comedic character whose eventually is faced with a dilemma so destructive that even he dissolves into sadness. Miller’s portrayal of the wounded comedian is an expert one. Watson, on the other hand, also delivers a performance that deserves to be remarked upon. While her American accent isn’t all the way there yet, Watson manages an honest performance. Her character is idealized by Charlie, and through his eyes she is a goddess of sorts. There is one particular scene, wherein she is standing in the back of a moving truck, with her arms spread and her chest open. The idea is that she is supposed to seem ethereal, and she does indeed, most likely as a result of Watson’s ability to deliver captivating, yet subtle, emotion through stillness. Similarly to the performances of Miller and Watson, Lerman utterly transforms into Charlie. With every word or movement you felt his tension, his hesitation, his shame and his desperate hopes. His performance is uniquely captivating, because its familiarity prompts an espousing of empathy.
Sam: Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we’re nothing?
Charlie: We accept the love we think we deserve.
All the stories within Charlie’s story become very important as the film progresses. First he witnesses his sister being hit by her boyfriend. Then he becomes aware of Patrick’s relationship with Craig, a football player whose true sexuality is a secret. Then Sam confides in him about being molested when she was younger, and all of this is told with intermediate ambiguous flashbacks of Charlie’s Aunt Helen whose mysterious presence in the storyline is unexplained and vaguely haunting for most of the film. Following these revelations things begin to unravel. There is a particular scene between Charlie and Patrick, where Patrick’s comedic facade finally disintegrates, and in a moment of
confused vulnerability he kisses Charlie. This scene is perhaps the most gentle and kind scene in the entire film. Afterwards he apologizes and embraces Charlie, who receives his embrace and assures him that it’s ‘okay’. Miller shines most in this scene, when the gravity of teenage blues bite down on young tongues and the triumph and folly of youth are magnified in an emotionally charged moment. These sad affairs all culminate in Charlie’s hospitalization, after his friends leave to college and he’s left alone with his nightmares, which we eventually come to understand as his being molested by his Aunt Helen when he was a child, and her subsequent death. Charlie’s pain, communicated masterfully through Lerman, was realized through his need to rid others of their pain. That it, the downside to being a wallflower: powerlessly observing the pain of others.
Charlie: Because I know there are people who say all these things don’t happen. And there are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17. I know these will all be stories someday. And our pictures will become old photographs. We’ll all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening, I am here…
Possibly the best thing about this movie is that it does not belittle the troubles of young people. High school, adolescence, is arguably one of the most impactful times in any person’s life. In this way, Perks has a way of communicating a message so fundamental that the viewer cannot help but connect to it. Your story may not be the same, but the essence is the very same. Chbosky brings to life in this film what he brought to life with the book. He made something that taps into collective human trauma, and in doing so helped undo some of the knots that we sometimes have in our hearts. Some of our greatest quandaries are not from what we do not know, but from what we’ve known and never come to understand. Perks is pain and it is clarity.
Charlie: You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.