Directed by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age young adult drama. Stories like these often unfold like this:
–Boy is a sad, isolated and possibly self-loathing — Boy admires a charismatic character from afar who embraces who they are rather than hiding it — Boy identifies romantic interest who showers him with love he can’t yet give himself — boy has a supportive teacher who suggests life goes on after high school — boy is welcomed into the group and feels a part of something — boy becomes one with the group by defending it from others (?) — boy becomes man. Or something along those lines.
Despite my best attempts not to, I enjoyed this movie. Charlie is himself victimization personified. He highlights the victim within all of us, the scared child, the one who just wants to be accepted. He is painfully victimized here, not unlike Edward Scissorhands. Charlie even shows an unexpected propensity for violence that mirrors Scissorhands and The Iron Giant (and Lennie too).
I can’t tell if the trauma/abuse which Charlie (and others) deal with is manipulative here. It feels both manipulative and sincere, which makes me think it’s manipulative. Either way it works.
I guess that’s my problem with young adult coming of age movies as a whole, like Me & Earl & the Dying Girl. They insist you feel the same way as the characters, that you feel every dramatic ebb and flow in their lives. And to convey that the story must inherently be melodramatic.
In Wallflower we learn how Charlie was abused as a child, and this is meant to be the insight into why he is so meek, wide-eyed and, well lonely. It’s a specific reason to explain why he feels the way a lot of people (especially those who go on to work in the arts) feel at that age, only Charlie is a more more crystallized manifestation of the loner inside so many people.
As a case study of trauma this might be honest and true to life, but it feels here more like a surprise ‘twist,’ and in that way it feels manipulative. I’m thinking about it so much because I also think it works. I was pretty damn emotionally invested in Charlie’s story.
There’s a heartbreaking scene earlier in the film in which Charlie, comically stoned on hash brownies (in ways only seen in movies that don’t seem to understand how hash brownies work), casually tells Sam (Emma Watson) that his best friend shot himself the year before.
She feels the gut punch of the moment, especially as he doesn’t because of the drugs, and so should the audience. It’s brutal and horrific, and it forces us to really care for Charlie, not so much as a surrogate for our own hopes but as a parent might to a child. It will also be the first of two dramatic revelations into Charlie’s past that force this relationship on the audience.
Soon after the group of friends, in order to ensure he feels welcomed, toast to Charlie. He has a puzzled look on his face, they ask why, and he says, “I didn’t think anyone noticed me.” Yeah. No it’s f*ckin’ heartbreaking, it works, but it also frustrates me that it works. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone, and maybe it just speaks to the sap inside of me. So maybe my response to the film is a response to that sap. Maybe.
The film as a whole capitalizes on our own experiences with being the victim, with feeling like an outsider, with feeling completely alone. And again it works, but I can’t tell if it’s low hanging fruit or if it’s something more than that.
The film does give time and attention to other characters, but I wish we could see Charlie from the outside, rather than being forced inside his head. I think he has a lot in common with Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but that film looks at Cameron from the point of view of Ferris, the Patrick (Ezra Miller) character here.
It seems too easy to give us a character, watch him get abused and punch in the gut, and then tell us to relate to him. We already do. You could just show a wide-eyed puppy, have its owner kick him to the curb, and right there in three seconds we are firmly on the puppy’s side. That’s what I feel is going on with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
And yet for a young adult coming of age drama (with all the narration and quirky parents and upscale neighborhoods) this seems pretty well put together. It knows what it’s trying to do and it does it quite well. So it’s not a matter of execution but of intent.
And this fits neatly into this subcategory of movies, so what I’m complaining about isn’t this movie but the category as a whole.
Up Next: The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019), Pacific Heights (1990)