Infinite Youth: THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a film feels as if it were concocted in some secret lab just to jive with your own personal life experiences. Growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, I was a socially shrewd kid who played basketball, collected cassette tapes of indie rock (Slint and Sonic Youth were personal faves), wrote several short stories and screenplays (which will never see the light of day), and had an English teacher whom I looked up to like a personal Zeus (though unfortunately wasn’t as crush-worthy as Paul Rudd). I hung with a crew of friends, ranging from beefy teammates to the horror hound video store/rep screening nerds who called a local diner their base of operations until all hours of the night. I also wrestled with bouts of depression, casually smoked weed as a means to “balance myself out,” dabbled in LSD and other psychedelics (ecstasy led to me consuming four milkshakes during one diner sitting) and regularly contemplated suicide. In essence, I was the more athletic version of Charlie, the scenery-merging protag from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
I never read Chbosky’s novel in high school (I was roughly a year older than Charlie when it was first published), but I imagine if I had, it would’ve helped quite a bit during those transitionary years when one begins to discover who they truly are. With the film adaptation, Chbosky (acting as both writer and director) captures not only the essence of suburban Pittsburgh (while I hail from Eastern PA, my extended family is split between Outlier Yinzers and West Virginia Ski Slope Grandparents), but also what it was like to grow up in those white-bred, insulated neighborhoods during the 1990s.
The culture curated is one unto itself; kids sectioning off into respective groups and throwing get-togethers in upper middle-class, cookie cutter domiciles straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. You read (and sometimes re-read) the novels and listened to the records your friends deemed “important” and, over a few stolen beers, overpriced pot or poorly mixed cocktails, discussed them in depth with the eloquence your limited life experience allowed. You made mix tapes (an art lost on this iPod-addled generation) for members of the opposite sex you fancied and tried to articulate what each track thematically meant to the sonic whole. And in these moments of faux intellectual fumbling, distinctive truths eventually emerged; those who you chose to gather around you either accepting the darkness you carried or rejecting it entirely.
At thirty (which is how old I was when the film version was released), the mildly educated side of my brain was able to pick out the cinematic Easter Eggs Chbosky implanted in his visual text. Tom Savini’s mere presence as “fascist” shop teacher Mr. Callahan is obviously a fun Pittsburgh reference (connecting the movie to the city’s genre-centric past), but the sly casting of Melanie Lynskey as Charlie’s seemingly saintly Aunt Helen and Mae Whitman as his overzealous impractical foil also reveals an eye for type that the novice writer/director plays with and subverts. While undeniably a novelist at heart (his framing is sometimes clunky and stilted), Chbosky knows his way around a picture house, and proves himself a keen cinematic study. Yet beyond these ophthalmic signifiers, the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower thoroughly understands what growing up actually means. It isn’t about meeting your first love or finding that perfect song (though those are significant milestones), but confronting the flawed portions of your own psyche that you’re going to have to live and deal with for the rest of your days.
While Chbosky deserves much of the credit for why his big screen take on Perks works so well (as well as the criticism for some of the more affected directorial choices), Logan Lerman is the real revelation. His take on Charlie — the melancholic, lonely, smart kid who spent “some time in a hospital last year” — is one of the great representations of teenage angst in screen history. Lerman brings a wide-eyed purity to a boy who looks like he’s spending an extended day at the zoo instead of his freshman year in high school. The actor taps into just how lost we can all feel when entering a hostile landscape with no allies. We cower away from answering questions publicly because we don’t want to look like a “brown-noser” and shoot borderline helpless glances across cafeterias, begging old middle-school acquaintances to leave their already solidified group of grub mates. Everyday is a desperate quest for connection, and Lerman’s oversized orbs effortlessly beam that sense of ceaseless yearning.
Beyond the universality Lerman taps into during these Smiths-scored scenes of isolation, he also connects with the subtle darkness that hovers just below Charlie’s calm, collected surface. He doesn’t understand these constant, overwhelming feelings that wash over him and knows that, should his seclusion last much longer, he’s going to get “bad again” and do something totally out of his own control. It’s a feeling anybody who struggles with clinical depression has experienced and, for once, an actor actually gets it right. Depression doesn’t just manifest itself in feelings of gloom, but legitimate doom for all of those around you. You don’t just want to hurt yourself, but others. As a kid, I earned a reputation (much like Charlie does) for fighting, and being, really, really good at it. If you picked on my little brother or said something offensive about my mother, there was a solid chance your nose was going to be shattered post haste. At the time, I didn’t understand that these black out fits of violence were actually manifestations of my own discombobulated emotional core. “Touch my friends again and I’ll blind you,” isn’t just a threat when uttered in the movie, but an externalization of unconscious storminess.
Matching Lerman are the King & Queen of this Island of Misfit Toys: Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Watson sheds every last iota of her Hermione Granger image, becoming the embodiment of everybody’s first crush. The way cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Precious, Crazy.Stupid.Love) frames her (with a full-blown halo the first time she appears on the football stands) is nothing short of angelic; a lovely sight for Charlie’s sad eyes. Later, as she reveals her sordid, sexual history, Dunn keeps her shrunken in the middle of the frame, making her appear diminutive and vulnerable. It’s a sly visual representation of the way boys (and grown men) have made Sam feel her entire adolescence. She doesn’t want to be the object of desire anymore, but rather seen as the unique, radiant human being she is. While Watson no doubt works her ass off to create a palpable bond with our titular introvert, her performance is aided by careful shot selection and editing (not to mention pitch perfect set design — the twinkling lights of her room adding delicacy and softness).
Ezra Miller has just as much weight to carry as Patrick, the flamboyant gay boy who is carrying on a secret affair with the school football star (Johnny Simmons). Miller makes you feel every (sometimes literal) punch Patrick takes, watching his closeted boyfriend from afar as he slaps five with his homophobic teammates. To contrast with his sorrow, Miller brings a stellar sense of comedic timing to the character (his one F-Bomb is the movie’s most hilarious moment), and his caring for his once wayward stepsister radiates off of the screen. One of Perks’ major themes is that of sacrificial protection — characters giving up their own happiness so that those they love most live joyously — and none are more nobly gallant than Miller’s Patrick.
Upon first viewing, it took me a second to realize that The Perks of Being a Wallflower was still a period piece. It wasn’t until “Teenage Riot” came blaring out of the speakers of Patrick’s beater pick-up that I realized I had been transported back to the mid-‘90s (a party scene needle drop of Cracker’s “Low” damn near acts as a time machine in this regard). Chbosky and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas have curated their own mix-tape (whose near ubiquitous presence is one that will either delight or confound the audience, depending on their generational affiliation). Choice cuts from The Smiths, Dexy’s Midnight Runners (the Living Room Routine!) and even Bowie himself dominate these kids’ respective headspaces. While it could be viewed as a flaw, the period details Chbosky includes are really only going to be distinctly recognizable to those who remember what it was like to be a teenager in 1996. No boom-boxes or bright, neon colors to feign authenticity; just a confident familiarity with the youth culture of the era in which his story is set.
It’s this sense of being there that so thoroughly defines The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even if one is wholly unfamiliar with the Fort Pitt tunnel or “Louder Than Bombs,” Chbosky taps into a collective sense of the loss and triumph of youth that one could never shake if they remember what it’s like to be sixteen after they turn seventeen. These pictures have not faded into old photographs, but are instead vibrant and full of the same spark that inspired their takers to pick up a camera. And while these are certainly stories that Chbosky is sharing for those who also lived them, they’re concurrently events that are happening right now. A kid is hurting somewhere, just looking for someone to talk to at lunch or maybe go see Rocky Horror with on a Saturday night. Another simply wants you to pick up that punk ‘zine she spent an extra twenty bucks on so she could print it in color. When these tiny victories occur, kids realize they aren’t sad stories. They are alive and trying the very best they can. Because youth is not a fleeting moment, experienced by all before they grow old and become moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers. It is ongoing, ever-present, and necessary. It is what thrives even after those who once ran wild now have settled into the routine of adulthood.
In short — it is infinite.