Monday, October 15, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Movie Review

That feeling of being infinite is one of the amazing things about being a teenager and also the most frustrating thing about dealing with teenagers. I look back on my high school days with fond memories even as I recall that there was a fair amount of trepidation going to school on the first day of freshman year. But through four years of making new friends, drifting apart from old ones, growing up and slowly becoming the person I am today, I don’t have much recollection of ever feeling like it was going to end. Now I look back and wish I’d taken it slower, for those four years are, in fact, finite. These feelings and many more are captured eloquently in Stephen Chbosky’s film version of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


Chbosky’s novel was published in 1999 and takes the form of a series of letters written by the main character, Charlie, to an anonymous friend detailing the events of his high school freshman year. Chbosky was given the unusual opportunity not only to adapt his novel for the screen, but also to direct the film. I’ve not read his book, but I can only imagine that his film captures the very essence of the book to the minute details.

Charlie, played by the young actor Logan Lerman, who should have a strong acting future in front of him, is a shy and rather messed up kid. He suffers deep inside in ways that his family will never fully comprehend, though they think they do and they are supportive in all the ways a family is supposed to be. Prior to beginning high school, Charlie’s best and only friend killed himself. Earlier in his life, he lost his Aunt Helen, who was his “favorite person in the world” and also the source of some heavy emotional scarring. He desperately wants high school to be a new beginning, but on the first day the only friend he makes is his English teacher.

But everyone, at least in the movies, eventually finds their place and it isn’t long before Charlie befriends some seniors who also lie just on the outside of “popular” crowd. He meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who take him for a ride through a tunnel in which Sam stands outside the vehicle taking the wind in her face. This is the moment when Charlie falls in love and utters what I believed at the time to be a leaden line of dialogue when he pronounces that he feels infinite. By the end of the film, I understood why that line was important because we don’t know until very late in the film just how bad things can get for him. The film is laden with reminders of time’s being finite. Clocks are shown repeatedly; Charlie counts down the days until he’s finished with high school; his friends talk ceaselessly about their futures after graduation. Time is perhaps Charlie’s greatest enemy because after the end of the year, all his new friends will be gone and then where will he be? Chbosky never brings this out explicitly, but it hovers over every scene.

There is never any date stamp on the film, but styles and trends would indicate it takes place sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. I later learned that the novel makes it clear the school year is ’91-’92. That makes Charlie one year older than me. I was going through high school around the same time. I certainly wouldn’t say I identify strongly with Charlie. I pity the person who does. Charlie can’t seem to find a way to approach the world. I wasn’t the most extroverted person, but I had enough friends and I certainly wasn’t damaged like he is. What I did identify very strongly with in the film is the overall sense of being part of a group of friends who are unique, creative and carefree. His friends look a hell of a lot like my friends did in high school.

Patrick, an out of the closet gay kid who maintains a relationship with a closeted football player, seemed so directly modeled on someone I knew as a teenager that I wondered if it was more than just coincidence. I was convinced of this by the friends’ enthusiasm for a local theater that shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show while Patrick and friends act out the parts on stage in full costume. My friends in high school were the ones who wanted to do a full performance of “Sweet Transvestite” from that film in the Variety Show (the principal decided it was too racy). The details of the character strike me as perfectly true to life down to the way he wears a tuxedo to a dance, cheers enthusiastically at the football game, and tries to make classmates laugh on the first day. Most of what he does carries a slight touch of irony as a way of masking how difficult it must be to be an out gay kid in high school. Miller’s performance proves beyond a doubt what a considerable rising talent he is and that his alienated and disturbed teenager in We Need to Talk About Kevin was not just a fluke.

The supporting cast is filled out by recognizable actors who leave a lasting impression in their limited screen time. They are essential elements in the lifeblood of the film. There’s Paul Rudd as Charlie’s English teacher who keeps giving him books to read outside the curriculum; Melanie Lynsky as Aunt Helen in flashbacks; Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh as Charlie’s Parents; makeup artist Tom Savini as the wood shop teacher; and Joan Cusack as a psychiatrist.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a high school movie for grownups and for teenagers, much like me and my friends were, who choose to see films at the local arts cinema (where I saw this film). The drug and alcohol use shown is an honest depiction of the way kids experiment (all part of that infinite feeling) and not like the binge drinking and silly antics of high school films that are made for teenagers. Here’s one that actually has something to say, isn’t stupid about it, and doesn’t condescend. It was refreshing and somewhat invigorating to see a good number of teenagers at the screening I attended. Perhaps there is hope.

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