Saturday 15 February 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Every writer who makes a film or book or anything about high school, one of the few periods of life that land on practically every writer's "write about what you know" range, faces the question of which side of high school they're going to show, knowing there's so many they couldn't do the realistic thing and show them all at once. There's time capsules like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, there's of-the-moment vulgarities like Project X, and there's those that show high school, and life in general, through a single lens: from a loner's diary to a sexy romp through the golden years: from Donnie Darko to American Pie. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which looks back to it's early 90s setting with a passionate nostalgia, we're taken through the loner high school experience seen through romantic eyes; and we accept the impossible sentiment we see on screen because we accept that everyone goes through high school differently and this could have been someone's high school, same as it could have even been yours.

The loner kid we follow in Perks is called Charlie. He's recently been let out of an institution (from a mental disorder brought on by a traumatic childhood event and more recently a best friend's suicide) and into his first year of high school. It's easy to like Charlie because he does all the things we wish we had been doing while we were uncool: making mix tapes for friends that include his favorite song, which is the final song from a Smith's compilation disk, and giving copies of The Beatles' Something (on vinyl no less!) to girls he likes, although never crossing the line into romantically cool in the process.

Charlie quickly falls in with eccentric and happily uncool step-siblings Sam and Patrick (played by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller) while at a school football game and in that beautiful way you drift from place to place not even knowing how when your young, ends up stoned on the floor of a house party filled with the uncool sub-culture of kids he soon becomes a member of; a bittersweet success in that all these people he can now call friends are in their last year of high school while he, remember, has just started his first.

Although Charlie never says being a writer is what he wants to do with his life, he writes letters throughout the film, which are what made up the book version of Perks. Like all writers he can see what others can't (after all he's a "wallflower") yet he's cursed in that he never loses himself to anything, and Logan Lerman who plays Charlie perfectly acts out the physicality of someone never truly lost in the moment. Instead he's an observer, as Jack Kerouac once wrote "I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me" and so does Charlie shamble after Sam and Patrick and the wonderful band of misfits they're part of.

Stephen Chbosky wrote the original novel, and has done sketchy-at-best work in TV and film since, and here becomes one of the rare authors to adapt their own work with positive results, showing a passion for his own material which has been very illogically lacking in previous self-adapted works like The Cider House Rules. It's hard to tell if it's Chbosky natural direction or if it's a side product of re-working your own work 10 years after originally writing it, but Perks has a scene-by-scene fluency that makes the year in the life of a high school outcast a breezy watch.

It's movies like this, which pull on our nostalgia for things that didn't even happen to us, that can't simply be labeled either funny or dramatic, because it's movies like this that try to hand us truth even though they're unrealistic, and like real life things are funny and dramatic and sometimes weird and awkward and surprising in good and terrible ways, and unlike real life they somehow end up feeling perfect, so I guess the best word I could attribute to Perks is "sweet" which is something no one describes even their best high school years as.


  1. Saw this right after I graduated from high school and man, it tore me to shreds. But for all of the right reasons, that's for sure. Good review.

    1. Thanks, I couldn't imagine anyone not feeling something for this movie whether they liked high school or not.