thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: There Are Quite a Few

In Film on November 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Sarah T.

My love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower was inevitable as mason jars at a hipster wedding. Blend adolescent longing with puppy love, transformations, wild nights, and the passionate loyalty particular to friendships forged on the battlegrounds of high school, and you bet I will drink that milkshake. I’LL DRINK IT UP. Ten years out of my own teenage wasteland, I remain a sucker for coming-of-age stories because at bottom they’re about change–which means they tend to resonate with anyone who’s still in the (apparently endless?) process of Figuring Stuff Out.

But even given my predisposition to adore any film that features SATs and Sadie Hawkins dances, Perks is a winner, at times a little corny but brimming with heart. The movie tracks the freshman year of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy, eager-to-please innocent with a troubled past. After a few lonely weeks at school, Charlie befriends a pair of senior step-siblings, each radiating life-force. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is a warm, charismatic joker who’s forced to hide his relationship with a popular football player from their closed-minded community. Sam (Emma Watson) is an equally compassionate former party girl who’s gotten her act together–but she’s worried that college admissions boards won’t be able to see past her sub-par GPA. They take young Charlie under their wing, and before he knows it the three of them are flying through a tunnel in Patrick’s pickup truck, Sam clambering out the cab to ride in the open air while David Bowie’s “Heroes” flares. They  don’t know who’s singing; they’re still young enough to be discovering classics for the first time. “I feel infinite,” Charlie tells Patrick, quietly, like a confession. It’s a hopelessly cheesy line, but it’s also exactly the right way to describe the way you feel when, for the first time, you stumble upon people who crack your life open.

[spoilers after the jump]

Perks is the story of how Charlie un-sticks himself from the wall and starts Participating with a capital P. He unfolds under the light of his friends’ attention, getting accidentally stoned on pot brownies at his first high school party and subbing in, wearing just a pair of gold lamé briefs, at their weekly production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the movie is also the story of how he heals from trauma. It’s clear from the beginning that Charlie is coping with mental health issues: we see him dutifully swallowing unnamed prescription pills, and there are vague references to doctors and hospitals and seeing bad things. Early on in the movie, he reveals that his former best friend committed suicide at the end of the previous year. That’s one part of the picture. There’s also another childhood trauma buried deeper inside him, which the movie unravels over the course of brief, scattered flashbacks.

Perks handles Charlie’s depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress with sensitivity. He’s vulnerable at times, but the movie never falls into the trap of making him out to be a victim or a holy saint. Meanwhile, his friends and family are loving but by no means perfect in their attempts to support him. When Charlie accidentally breaks his friend Mary Elizabeth’s heart, he’s temporarily excluded from their tight-knit group–an exile that shakes his emotional stability. Hearing Mary Elizabeth reject him over the phone while he pleads for forgiveness filled me with anger: didn’t she understand what it meant to take his support network away from him? But that’s just the point. She doesn’t understand, both because she doesn’t know everything that Charlie’s dealing with and because she’s human, and sometimes humans get so wrapped up in their own hurt that they can’t spot the stakes for someone else.

The movie also takes care to show that healing is not the same thing as getting cured. Charlie gets sick before the film begins. Then he gets better, and then he gets worse again, finally landing in the hospital for about a month. With the help of his doctor, his devoted family, and the friends who proved he didn’t have to be afraid to let them in, he can finally start talking about what happened to him. There’s no miraculous recovery: just the long, slow process of telling the truth and letting others know it too.

Everything in Perks is fleeting–not just Charlie’s ups and downs. First loves crash and burn; the school year, miraculously, draws to a close. His friends graduate, scattering to film school and Harvard and Penn, leaving him to face down sophomore year solo. But just because his makeshift family can’t stay together doesn’t mean the fierce love that binds them isn’t worth celebrating. ““I know we’ll all become somebody,” Charlie narrates as the film closes, “we’ll all become old photographs and we’ll all become somebody’s mom and dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening.”

And thankfully Charlie has a few constants, though maybe not the kind that inspire feelings of infinity. Still, there are his parents, certain as the morning paper at the bottom of the driveway, and the playful, rumpled English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who is the first to hone in on Charlie’s potential. Over the course of the school year they form their own private book club, as Mr. Anderson hands Charlie worn copies of The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Mr. Anderson tells Charlie he could even write his own books one day, if he wants to. But the books aren’t exactly the point. They could be exchanging any dispatch from the promised land for bright and lonely wallflowers: Cassavetes films, Smiths CDs. They’re speaking in code, and Mr. Anderson is telling Charlie two big things. The first is: There’s a world out there with a place for you. The second is: In the meantime, I can see you.

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