Watching THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER got me thinking about my own teenage years (don’t worry, this won’t be a love letter to 1994). Like everyone else I have a fondness for the culture, the music, the fun, and the endless energy, but they give way to so many other wonderful things in life. Were I to sit here and bemoan their passing, I’d feel more than a tad silly. However, if there’s one thing I do miss, it’s the way that part of one’s life opens itself up to new friends.
It’s a phenomenon that vanishes as we age, and something we end up missing: That moment when within a matter of weeks, we can become so important to a group of people that they would make us feel special and safe.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is beginning high school sometime around 1990, and having some trouble in adapting to his new surroundings. He has no friends, his older acquaintances aren’t taking him under their wing, and his parents don’t know where to begin where advice is concerned. They are worried about him though – there are signs that he has had recent bouts with depression, so his acceptance is something they quietly wish for even if they can’t help him find it.
At the homecoming football game, Charlie makes a bold move and reaches out to another misfit named Patrick (Ezra Miller). Ezra is an eccentric who sees far more value in people than most of the materialistic students at the high school, so he brings Charlie into his circle of friends without hesitation. The first person he introduces Charlie to is his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson); a free-spirited girl who loves good music and artistic spirits. Like Patrick, she sees something special in Charlie and strikes up a fast friendship. However, on Charlie’s side of the table, the feelings between them become a bit more intense.
The story follows the three along with their friends Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) and Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) as they navigate their senior year: A year that will be dotted with laughter, love, heartbreak, music, and loss.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a poem dedicated to those wonderful years of self-discovery we all go through from age thirteen to age eighteen. Remember that stretch? (Some readers of this site are still living them) It’s the point in time where so much of what we discover and experience seems so much more wonderful. The alcohol is as delicious as forbidden fruit, the love is sixteen times more intense, the drama feels like it could end our entire existence. And then there’s the music – songs we take on like personal philosophies, a seemingly endless ocean of joy waiting to be discovered.
A friend of mine actually wondered how it could be possible that the characters in this film could be so into The Smiths and Nick Drake, and yet they don’t know that it’s David Bowie singing “Heroes”. For me, that detail actually underlines a lot of my earlier point. High school is all about coming across bits and pieces for the first time, and often we don’t come across them in the right order. So sure, it’s reasonable to assume that these characters could live and breathe the arty-er music of the moment, but not know about the music that got them there.
The point isn’t that they haven’t heard of “Heroes”, so much as it is their reaction when they do. Charlie, Patrick, and Sam are the sorts of people who use voices of past heroes to help them express what they want of their present. So whether it’s David Bowie for Sam, or Tim Curry for Patrick, or F. Scott Fitzgerald for Charlie, the discovery of these artists is only a sliver of the story; it’s how they identify with them that tells the rest.
Beyond self-discovery, the other core theme of WALLFLOWER is love – specifically the sort of intense, screwed-up love we find ourselves party to growing up. Many of the characters in the film find themselves rather mixed-up where affairs are the heart are concerned, and in fact often we see relationships built on an imbalance of affection. More than once, it’s pointed out, that as humans “We accept the love that we think we deserve”, but I don’t think that tells the whole story.
Some teenagers are lucky enough to approach love the right way, but for many others, love will be a complete nightmare for a while. Some will love people who hurt them, some will love others who don’t love them back, others will love people in inappropriate and perhaps even dangerous ways. All are present in this film, and every character is indelibly changed by what comes of these expressions of love. The thing is though – that’s OK. Our teenage years are the time to experience these messy feelings of love. We’ll never love as intensely as we do then, and we’ll never open ourselves up as widely to the chance of being hurt.
Like those songs that we discover as they suddenly chime out of a car radio, the love we discover will shape our character going forward. Whether we find a person who compliments us perfectly, or we give in to dysfunction and chase a love that is unattainable, it will always be a part of our story…like scars across our heart. What WALLFLOWER seems to want us to remember, is that it’s important to remember how we got those scars.
Many details of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER feel familiar, and some might see that as a failing of the film. However, I would submit that the familiarity the film exudes comes from the fact that a lot of us felt like losers as teenagers. If we didn’t feel like losers, we felt like romantic poets. If we didn’t feel like romantic poets, we felt like we were living a life of high drama (I could go on, but I feel like you get the point). The familiarity of this film comes from not just other films of its ilk, but also from our own lives. Sure, some of the beats of this story have been told before by other storytellers, and perhaps even told better. Still, they remain worth telling, and WALLFLOWER tells them well.