The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Mae Whitman, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott
In the summer of 1996 Stephen Chbosky was struck by a vision of a young teen standing in the back of a truck driving through a tunnel while brainstorming a new novel. Building off a phrase he’d written for another story, “…that’s just one of the perks of being a wallflower”, Chbosky combined his tunnel vision with his need for emotional catharsis, and in four months the best-selling novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was born. A decade has now passed since the release of its film adaptation (written and directed by the author himself) and Chbosky’s painfully honest yet delicate portrayal of high school has solidified itself as one of the best coming-of-age films of the 2010s.
Like many other films of the genre – Booksmart (2019), Lady Bird (2017), and The Spectacular Now (2013) – The Perks of Being a Wallflower showcases the awkwardness of adolescence. But the film goes far beyond surface experiences of teenage-hood; tackling the nuances of sexual identity, alcoholism, mental illness and various forms of abuse. In the director’s commentary, Chbosky said his main goal in making this adaptation was to showcase “…the highs and lows of growing up and all the secrets that young people have and keep”. There isn’t a better description of the film than his. It truthfully captures the hidden pains of youth, highlighting the subtle losses of innocence as adulthood crashes into the last years of ‘childhood’.
The film follows 15-year-old Charlie Kelmeckis (Logan Lerman) at the end of the summer of 1991. Suffering with clinical depression and returning from a stay in a mental hospital, he enters his freshman year of high school. Simultaneously, Charlie is coping with the death of his childhood best friend and begins writing letters about his experiences to an unknown recipient. These letters will serve as narration for the film and offer a peek into Charlie’s inner world.
After failed attempts at connecting with people in his class, the shy teen tries to expand outside of his comfort zone by attending his high school’s first football game. It is here that Charlie meets two seniors, the electric Patrick (Ezra Miller), and his free-spirited stepsister Sam, played by Emma Watson in her first role outside of the Harry Potter franchise. The two instantly take to Charlie as they bond over their similarities: being social outcasts and their love of indie music.
Music is a big part of Chbosky’s ethos in this film, using it to connect the characters not only to one another but to the audience as well. The famous homecoming “living room routine” scene is a shining example. The classic 80s bop “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s starts off diegetic, with Patrick and Sam rushing to the dancefloor out of excitement that their boring school is finally playing “good music”. Charlie assumes the position of Wallflower and watches them from afar. The two dive deeper into their silly dance routine and Charlie slowly builds the courage to join them, the gravity of this accentuated by Logan Lerman’s spot-on depiction of social anxiety.
“Eileen” suddenly becomes transgenic as Charlie joins the duo, and the fun-loving tune swells through the film. This technique captures the hugeness of the moment for Charlie and guides each of us to enjoy it with him. Chbosky uses this method a few times in Perks, most notably the reoccurrence of “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Heroes” by David Bowie.
Soon after the dance, the seniors introduce Charlie to their eccentric friend group akin to the likes of The Breakfast Club (one of Chbosky’s inspirations for the film). Following the accidental consumption of a weed brownie, Charlie discloses to Sam that his best friend actually killed himself. Upon learning this, Sam implores her group to take Charlie under their collective wing and they do so without hesitation. “Welcome to the island of misfit toys”, she tells Charlie. Much like The Losers Club of IT (2017), or The Goonies (1985), the Perks crew is a collection of self-proclaimed ‘losers’ who’ve found family in their collective resistance of conformity.
Where most coming-of-age films hone in on comedy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is laser-focused on humanity. The film lets laughs come out situationally- it isn’t trying to generate them, rather it focuses on the authenticity of the human moments that humor tends to find its way through. What makes Perks different is its ability to nurture the complexities of youth in a non-judgmental way – after all, high school is a bizarre time in a person’s life. Choices start to have real consequences yet there is still a powerlessness that comes with being just shy of adulthood. Whether its curfews, bathroom passes, or asking for an allowance, the freedoms of being a teenager have their equal restrictions.
There are dozens of places where The Perks of Being a Wallflower excels at its encapsulation of the anguish of youth, but none is done with more care than its portrayal of PTSD and sexual trauma. Paralleled only by Short Term 12 (2013), another film that explicitly touches on childhood abuse, The Perks of Being a Wallflower gives us just enough context to understand what has occurred without exploiting real-life victims, or making us feel as though we are exploiting the characters by knowing too much.
Most of the central cast of characters are survivors of abuse at the hands of partners, relatives and other predatory adults, but it never feels like their trauma is what drives them. Instead, it is the group’s ability to come together and find acceptance within each other that is at the helm, once again illustrating Chbosky’s empathy towards youthfulness and the involuntary loss of innocence.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower still oozes with directorial confidence. Although the film was his freshman effort at feature-length filmmaking, Stephen Chbosky got the rare opportunity of depicting his own (semi-autographical) novel. This unique artistic control over the subject matter shines through in the film’s most raw moments, exemplified in Chbosky’s choice to switch to a handheld camera as Charlie’s mental health shatters in the third act.
Combining his heartfelt screenplay and directorial ambition with his cast’s devotion to vulnerability, Stephen Chbosky’s debut film is one of the 2010s’ best coming-of-age films. Teenagers and young folk, now more than ever, could benefit from such a proud statement on how their pain is important and not something to be ignored. On the other hand, adults today are all too quick to forget how unforgiving growing up can be once they’ve done it; like Charlie said himself, “…there are people who forget what it feels like to be 16 when they turn 17”. These moments are real and, even if the memories aren’t present, the experience of youth is infinite.
Charlie didn’t live through the horrors of 2020 nor did he bear witness to a Trump-run America, but his self-awareness and willingness to attempt to heal is still an inspiration for those struggling today. The Perks of Being a Wallflower serves as a gentle reminder of the fragility of adolescence for its older audiences and offers a warm embrace for today’s teenagers. After almost two and a half years in a global pandemic, regardless of age, everyone could use a tunnel moment, this one moment that Charlie describes “…when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive”.
Written by Kae M.
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