Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2013)

In the 1980's, John Hughes came along and gave a generation of kids an iconic voice that many of them believed understood them. Hughes, at his best, was warm, funny, insightful and at the very least, had a grasp on the kind of confusion and sense of isolation that accompanies many kids through adolescence and all through high school.

It's understandable, in thinking back on his films, that they were as popular as they were with middle class kids who essentially had their whole lives ahead of them and for whom high school quite possibly was the hardest time in their lives. There were certain problematic cultural and social aspects to his films, but from a story and artistic standpoint, given how well he did tap in to those less enjoyable aspects of adolescence, the largest problem with them was that they were ultimately fantasies. They tended to present a kind of epic victory, which only coincides with reality on the most rare occasions. The real victories for most people who experience adolescence as a very painful period of existence, are much more subtle, and many of them only come later, after the pain of the initial experience has dulled somewhat and we can gain some perspective on that experience, what it taught us and what happens when we choose to shape how it effects who we become.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, is in many ways a much less superficial and fantasy generated John Hughes film. It's a much more honest film, that doesn't look away from the ugliest aspects of being an adolescent or that it's an extremely complicated period in life in which the more horrible aspects of human behavior and social interactions begin to come crashing down and threatening to create the parameters in which one may define themselves for the rest of their lives. It doesn't attempt to ignore the fact that it's a period of new freedoms, and with those freedoms sometimes come emotionally bruising and horrifying discoveries. It's an honest and, dare I say it, beautiful film, in that it's also not completely overtaken by those darker aspects of its story. The good, great, bad and ugly are all given equal attention, and become undercurrents, instead of signifying moments on which the entire plot turns. None of them is so particularly dominant as to define it as a whole. It is at the same time a somewhat hopeful film, but without having to resort to outright fantasy and the kind of epic victory Hughes installed at the end of basically all of his films.
The thing at the heart of The Perks of Being a Wallflower that tends to be missing from both John Hughes films and the majority of films depicting adolescence is essentially about the relationship one has with themselves, the kinds of shame that get hidden away and become the makers of compulsive behavior and so on. That kind of self reflection and self awareness isn't virtually absent from most of the other films to take on the themes and subjects this film takes on, it is utterly and completely absent. They are most often stories of either rebellion or some kind of social oppression which have a very clear villain standing in the way of the protagonist, and the question may be about what the protagonist needs to find in themselves to overcome the villain, but that's as far as any sense of self reflection ever goes. Here, the protagonist is the protagonist, and if there is a villain he happens to overcome, it's the inability to find some kind of accurate self reflection and the kinds of fears that are causing it. The real antagonist of the film is long gone before it even begins.

It's not completely oblivious to, hidden from or subjugated by the idea that our relationships with other people can help shape our own understanding of ourselves either. One of the great successes of the film is that there are very few bright shades of white and deep shades of black in the way it portrays it's characters or the world they live in. It's shockingly subtle, nuanced and complicated for the kind of film it is. Stephen Chbosky has done great work it creating characters that are revealed to us as the film continues, that end up feeling as if they all contain depths we haven't even scratched yet and in making them fully drawn people with motives as complicated as the histories they have. Given that it's a film dealing with teenagers, who as characters are right next to drug dealers, assassins and members of vast conspiracies as films most simplistic characters historically, it's a minor miracle. This is shockingly strong debut feature.

Where most films that attempt it (especially dramas that make it into multiplexes and are about middle class white people) are suffocated by their earnestness as it becomes a cloying weight, dragging any sense of perspective out of them, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower transcends that issue by being genuinely warm and genuinely harsh in moments where lesser films reach for the overly sunny or the overly gritty and trashy. It has the good sense to tell it's protagonists story as just one story, not the most important, heartfelt, awesome story that exists. It displays a sense of discipline that is impressive for a first time director, a cast of young actors and especially a writer directing his own material. In doing so, it's earnestness becomes one of it's strongest assets.

It's rare to see a film like this that doesn't end up coming off as a story that manipulated it's characters into the place it needs them to say what it wanted to and that feels as if it developed over the course of it's running time almost completely organically. This does. In a very strange way, the best way to describe it is to say that it ends up coming across as a film that gives a shit about it's characters and it's audience as if they were both actual people.

The cast is flat out excellent. All of them handle the nuance and complicated nature of the story and their characters in a way that seems effortless and give all of their characters a central warmth and humanity that the story would completely buckle without. Logan Lerman is particularly good as Charlie, the protagonist, specifically because he is able to play the introvert, shy and finding his way, while avoiding so much of the kind of cinematic and visual cues established by the John Hughes films that rely so heavily on these characters as stereotypes. Ezra Miller and Emma Watson are also fantastic as the half siblings who befriend him. All in all, even the smaller roles by recognizable faces are able to avoid so much of the kind of over sized performances that often sink films like this in their own self importance.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a minor miracle of a film. It's a genuinely warm, human, clear eyed look at some troubling and beautiful aspects of growing up and this particular characters story. I can enthusiastically suggest this film, and not least of all because of it's liberal use of my favorite David Bowie song.


  1. This is one of the only books I own (I'm cheap and get everything out of the library) so I obviously own it for a reason. I've read it three times and still counting.

  2. Chobsky beautifully handles many touchy subjects that teens must deal with: suicide, pregnancy, depression, drugs, drinking, and romance. I would recommend this book to mature teens and to the parents of any teen.

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