Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a surprisingly good film about the first awkward steps of high school and the even more first awkward steps of love. I liked it, and was moved, even though I’m about to turn 50. I felt long-ago pangs and longings. I felt this despite being painfully aware of the film’s central lie: that the perks of being a wallflower generally don’t include Emma Watson.
Off the wall
Charlie (“Percy Jackson”’s Logan Lerman) is about to start his freshman year of high school, friendless, in a suburb of Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s. He’s a shy kid but with an inner determination. He’s also known tragedy. His best friend killed himself the previous spring. His favorite aunt, Helen (Melanie Lynskey), died when he was young. He keeps flashing back to her death. A car accident? A suicide? He’s not quite right in the head. Incidents are alluded to. He’s aware that his parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) are worried he’ll “get bad again.”
High school is certainly the place to get bad again. We all know the casual cruelty there. Despite a good pedigree, including a way-too-hot older sister, Candace (Nina Dobrev), and a handsome older brother, who now plays college football (Zane Holtz), he sits alone at lunch. In English class, a girl makes offhand, nasty remarks. Moments after Charlie bonds with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), a senior grabs his book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and tears the cover in half with a “Whaddaya gonna do about it?” look on his face.
In shop class Charlie quietly admires the outgoing Patrick (Ezra Miller, from “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), an obviously gay guy who obviously doesn’t give a fuck. At the high school football game, Charlie works up the courage to sit next to Patrick, who, oddly, considering his rebel status, is cheering boisterously for the home team. Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), then stops by. Since she looks like Emma Watson, Charlie’s dazzled. There’s a moment, a kind of camera wobble, that indicates a sudden shift in Charlie’s life, that love-at-first-sightedness, even as what she’s talking about isn’t exactly romantic:
Sam: Could anything be more disgusting than the bathrooms here?
Patrick: Yeah, it’s called the men’s room.
There are several good—but not too good—lines like this. Sam says she isn’t a bulimic but a bulimicist. When Charlie tells the two he wants to be a writer but doesn’t know what to write about, Sam suggests he write about them. “Call it ‘Slut and the Falcon,’” Patrick adds. “Make us solve crimes!”
Is Charlie really a wallflower? He introduces himself to Patrick, after all. And at the Homecoming dance he forces himself off the wall and onto the floor, where Patrick and Sam are dancing boisterously to Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen.” He’s welcomed there. Joyously. It’s a joyous moment.
How little we know
I graduated from high school five years before the kids in this movie, 1981 versus 1986, a lifetime in cultural terms, but I kept feeling odd moments of resonance. Sam and Patrick do this counter-rotational dance that reminded me of a dance two Chinese girls did to R.E.M.’s “End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at a Taipei club in 1987. Charlie winds up dating the wrong girl in his group of misfits, the outgoing, smart, vaguely punkish, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), just as I did in my group. He has a bedroom moment with the right girl, Sam, that is less about sex and more about the held breath of first love, and then its release. I once tried to write a novel centering on such a moment.
I kept having to remind myself how little I knew, how little we all know, in high school. Mr. Anderson gives Charlie extra books to read, including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Really? I thought. Charlie doesn’t know these books already? Then I added up. I didn’t read Salinger until 10th grade. I didn’t read “Gatsby” until college. Sam likes to stand in the back of Patrick’s pick-up truck with her arms spread wide as he speeds in the tunnels and over the bridges of Pittsburgh, and we, and Charlie, watch her do this to one song, which they then spend the rest of the year, and movie, trying to find. They don’t recognize the singer, David Bowie, or the song, “Heroes.” Really? I thought. Bowie? They don’t know Bowie? That one definitely seems wrong.
But there are so many little things the movie does right. Mr. Anderson never becomes more than Mr. Anderson: a good teacher who gives out good books and good advice. At the end of the school year, Charlie hugs him and he responds with a tentative, one-armed back-pat, as if he’s wary of the administrative lines being crossed. Earlier, he gives Charlie the line Charlie repeats back to Sam: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” That’s why Candace accepts her jerkoff boyfriend (until she doesn’t), and Sam accepts hers (until she doesn’t), and Charlie accepts Mary Elizabeth (until their relationship, and his relationship with everyone else in the group, implodes). And that’s partly why it takes so long for Sam and Charlie to get together. What he feels for her, and what she seems to feel for him, is too meaningful. So it waits until she’s about to go off to college and there’s no more room for waiting. That’s generally when we find the courage. When there’s room for nothing else.
Charlie is an interesting character for being so passive. He’s a little more messed-in-the-head than we realize. He’s not just shy; it’s as if he’s carefully walking a very narrow path because he doesn’t like what he sees on either side. He is, in E.L. Doctorow’s phrase, a small criminal of perception. “There’s so much pain,” he says near the end. “And I don’t know how not to notice it.”
These are the little things the movie does right. But there are three big lies that go with this smaller, truer story.
The first lie is the aforementioned wallflower perks that include Emma Watson.
The second lie is how Charlie returns to his group’s good graces after his messy break-up with Mary Elizabeth. Patrick has secretly been dating a football player, Brad (Johnny Simmons), but they’re found by the Brad’s father, who beats the boy. At school, to protect himself, Brad becomes even more homophobic, and, at one point, calls Patrick “faggot,” then does nothing when his fellow football players begin to beat up Patrick. But Charlie does something. He stands, moves forward ... and the screen goes black. The next images we see are football players beaten on the ground, and Charlie, dazed, staring at his clenched fists, which are bruised and bloody. He did all that. Without knowing he did it. Skinny freshman Charlie against three senior football players. It’s a great wish-fulfillment fantasy, finding your inner Hulk, but it’s just that.
The final big lie is found in the final lines of the movie—and in its tagline.
Before the next school year starts, before Sam returns to U Penn and Patrick goes off to Seattle (to participate, it’s implied, in the nascent grunge scene), the three party one last time. Charlie has finally found that Bowie song for Sam, “Heroes,” and they play it again in the tunnel leading to the bridges over the three rivers of Pittsburgh; but this time it’s Charlie who stands in the back of the truck and spreads his arms wide to take it all in. Throughout the movie he’s been narrating to us, in the form of writing a letter to a friend named “Friend.” (Chbosky’s novel, upon which Chbosky’s movie is based, is epistolary.) And of the moment in the back of the truck, he tells us, “I am here and I am looking at her and she is so beautiful.” Nice, I thought. Great last lines, I thought. But those aren’t the last lines. The pickup truck begins to move away from the camera and toward the lights of the big city and Charlie adds: “And in this moment, we are infinite.”
In the audience, I grimaced. “And in the next moment,” I thought, “You are nearly 50.”
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