I did not go through the exact same thing Stephen Chbosky went through. Neither my experiences nor those of my friends were his experiences. So why then do I feel as though I have just sat through home movies of my adolescence?
That was a question that was plaguing me both after and during THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. The film is written and directed by Chbosky and based upon his bestselling novel. In doing some research following the film, I discovered much to my surprise that the book is not necessarily Chbosky’s life story either. Instead, he merely says he related to the characters in the film. And yet, everything in this film seems so genuine, as if someone turned a movie camera and filmed snatches of a suburb in 1992. And maybe that’s why I felt the connection. Some things are universal. And I have rarely, if ever seen a coming of age film that affected me as profoundly as this one.
Taking place during the early 1990s, our main character is Charlie (Logan Lerman – THE THREE MUSKETEERS, PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF), a teenager who is just starting high school. He is already very wary of this new experience. He has recently spent some time getting over a psychological breakdown and is experiencing great feelings of social anxiety and awkwardness. He desperately wants to make a friend, but so far the only person he can relate to is his English teacher (Paul Rudd).
Fortunately, he soon befriends Patrick (Ezra Miller – WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, ANOTHER HAPPY DAY), a gay senior cruelly nicknamed “Nothing” when a prank on his shop teacher (Tom Savini) backfires. Patrick is prone to clowning around and throwing the cruel taunts of his classmates back in their faces, something that Charlie seems to respect and envy. Patrick’s stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson of HARRY POTTER fame) is an inseparable part of their trio, a young woman with abundant individuality and a tragic lack of self-esteem.
Charlie’s friends become his lifeline. Through them, he discovers good music, a sense of community and the idea that being an outcast may not always be such a terrible thing. Things are not always smooth. It pains Charlie to see his friends suffer both at the hands of society and his comrades’ own fragile egos. Things are further complicated in that he is obviously crazy about Sam.
This film tore my heart out. Even reminiscing for this review is making my breathing more laborious. Because Chbosky has touched upon something here that is truly special. We all know about the coming of age film. It’s become so familiar that I have found myself describing several recent examples just as “a coming of age story” without further elaboration. Sometimes, the films work. Sometimes, they feel artificial. But THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is miles above the typical coming of age story. It is heartfelt and it is amazing.
The three main actors are all incredible. Lerman and Miller are astounding in their roles and it becomes obvious that the hype surrounding them in cinema circles was more than just that. Emma Watson breaks out of her Hermione Granger role and creates a character that is at once fascinating, intoxicating, inspiring and yet so terribly self-deprecating and vulnerable. These aren’t just fine performances for actors of their age. These are fine performances, period.
Chbosky’s direction is intriguing without being intrusive. He captures the magic and pain of Charlie’s experience, recreating a time when we weren’t dinosaurs and yet there was no internet or any of the things which seem to dominate our culture today. If you heard a song and didn’t hear who did it, you had to track it down and it became a quest, even if it turns out the song was known throughout the rest of the world.
I connected to THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER in ways that I can’t even count and a word of warning – here is where I get personal. Unlike Charlie, I didn’t have any major event that contributed to my psychological makeup. However, I have had lifelong struggles with social awkwardness and chronic depression. I have always struggled to find my place in the world and I still struggle to this day. I have had to fight back those cruel, destructive and just plain wrong voices that tell me I’m not good enough, that I don’t deserve the things I fight for. Like the millions in similar situations, I have dealt with this my whole life. Like most of them, it really started coming to a head during my teenage years.
When I was Charlie’s age, I rarely went through a single day where I said more than fifty words. I faded into the background and began every day with the deepest wish that it would be over quickly. As virtually anyone who knows me today can tell you, this does not match the personality they are familiar with. I am very talkative, sometimes to a fault. I tend to joke around and over the years have become less and less concerned with what others think, though I would be lying if I said it weren’t still a big problem.
The reason I was able to come out of my shell was due to the intervention of the many people I would be blessed to call my friends. Of this group, few were what you would call the popular crowd. In fact, I was unaware that many of the types of people I would meet existed. Friends like these enrich our lives. They tell us we’re not alone without ever saying it. They make every day a little easier. New challenges and dramas and heartaches appear every day, and yet it’s not as bad because it isn’t the problem of the individual but also those who care about them.
This is what THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is about – that sense of belonging that so many films try to explain but so few are able to truly capture. I could look at several scenes in the film, the rites of passage of suburban youth, and was transported right back to those similar moments in my own life. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I was roughly the same age as Charlie when this film takes place. But there are bigger things as well. When Charlie laments that he sees all the people he loves in pain and it hurts him and he can’t shut it off, I sat it my seat, silently nodding agreement.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a testament to one young person’s growth, rocky and uncertain though it may be. It’s a comedic homage to everyone who makes those confusing and terrifying days a little easier. It’s a masterpiece.
Many people have lost touch with their friends from back then, but for the most part I have not. Sure, some have drifted away and we live different lives now. Others I still talk to regularly, one of them even helps run this site. Perhaps the greatest blessing of all is that a couple of friends I had not spoken to in more than a decade have re-entered my life. Though we have years of individual experiences in the meantime, it is as if no time has passed. I do not let my friends go. They’re too precious for that.
So, much like Charlie in this film and at the risk of getting overly sentimental, I would like to address those people now. Let me just take this one moment to say that without you, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Thank you for being there. I love each and every one of you. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for mature situations, language and drug use
– Running Time: 1hr 42mins.