The popular narrative we are fed throughout our formative years is that each step on the socially constructed journey shall be ‘better’ than the one that came before. Middle school is an exciting new frontier if one is in elementary school. High school magically unlocks the secrets to happiness when one languishes in middle school. College provides the freedom to ‘discover ourselves’ and solve all worldly problems when we are discontent with high school. Each of these statements are little more than platitudes, distracting us from the issues of the day with empty promises of tomorrow. It is a form of broad cultural deflection, one that stems from a widespread, socially ingrained inability to confront complex emotions.
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower understands this. It is a film layered with dozens of multifaceted thematic issues, but most can be traced back to this idea: That time does not heal wounds. That waiting for the next phase of one’s journey to cover the pain is a certain path to greater misery. That the moments or experiences that change us for the better are never found on a social map, but in our own hearts and minds, in those subtle impulses that tell us we have arrived at a crossroads, or met the person for whom we should climb out on a limb. That an epiphany can happen at any time, and that we must open and prepare our hearts if we are to understand, in that moment, just how much potential we have to evolve, continuously, on a journey that knows no emotional destination.
“I feel infinite,” says protagonist Charlie during one such epiphany. I know what he means. And I have never seen a film come close to capturing that sensation quite as well as this one.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a lonely high school freshman, nervous about the new school year and haunted by demons of the past. The film traces his story of self-discovery, as he befriends a group of quirky seniors and finds himself accepted for the first time in his life. Chbosky focuses not on plot, but on individual experiences and developing relationships that contribute to Charlie’s ongoing arc. His two best friends – stepsiblings Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) – are also explored in depth, as their damage and development directly parallel or intersect with Sam’s successes and failures.
This is not a typical teenage drama, but a deeply felt, highly personal chronicle of identity and desire, one that abandons the standard, recycled talking points in favor of a serious discussion about the emotional issues that plague young adults. It is agonizingly authentic and remarkably well observed, and though I cannot promise all viewers will see themselves reflected in these characters, I know some will. I personally connect to Charlie more than any other screen character in 2012. His view of high school, many of his personal challenges, and the ways in which he attempts to overcome them played as eerily autobiographic for me, making for a borderline unbearable experience in some of the film’s most emotionally charged moments.
But if your connection to the material does not run as deep as mine, I cannot imagine a single viewer failing to find common ground in Chbosky’s story. We all know the thrill of making new friends, or reaching new experiential milestones, or perhaps most obviously, the painful rush of gazing upon the significant other we know we shall never have.
These are only a fraction of the sensations in the film’s vast thematic palette. I have a wonderful film professor who begins every discussion of our most recent screening by writing a series of twenty to thirty topics on the board, each of which could easily be explored for several lengthily class periods. He can only do this for films that can be defended as ‘great,’ for even very good movies rarely warrant thirty separate in-depth discussions.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower belongs on that board, as I found my mental checklist of vast, important topics growing with every minute: Damage. Desire. Repression. Identity. Friendship. Romance. Sexuality. Music. Literature. Writing. Religion. Role-models. Family. Abuse. Mental disconnect. Healthy versus unhealthy attraction. Platonic love versus sexual desire. Emotional concealment versus emotional honesty. The concept of ‘other.’ Group dynamics. Psychological trauma. The nature of youth. The dichotomy of maturity. The infinity of potential.
The film hosts all these discussions and more, and layers each with the rich, nuanced precision of a great novel. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Chbosky has adapted the film from his own acclaimed book, but Perks never plays as an obvious adaptation. It explores its themes through uniquely cinematic aesthetics – from beautiful, provocative cinematography to the essential presence of diegetic pop music – and relies on performance, rather than scripted exposition, for character development.
This puts a massive amount of weight on the cast’s shoulders, but each bear the burden with ease. Lerman, Watson, and Miller are each spectacular in their own way, always taking great care to flesh out their roles a little more in each successive sequence. Watson, miles away from Hermione Granger, is absolutely magnetic, a rapturously beautiful, thoroughly broken personality who can barely conceal deep-seated weaknesses. Miller, on the other hand, is all vulnerability, but the confident, loving way he wears it on his sleeves makes him seem less susceptible to the trauma we know he must eventually endure. His work is incredible.
But while Watson and Miller get the flashier parts, it is Lerman who walks away with the movie, not just because he is given the lion’s share of material, but for the subtly haunted way he moves through the world. Lerman’s performance grows increasingly powerful with each passing frame, as he develops Charlie from a simple touchstone to a psychologically tormented wreck, all while keeping the character relatable and authentic. I would be thrilled by Oscar nominations for Watson and Miller, but a lead actor nod for Lerman seems like a no-brainer worth banging the drum for.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower will not be for everyone – teenage dramas are typically lightweight because many viewers resist attempts to treat young adult issues seriously – but for those it affects, it affects greatly. Hours after seeing the film, I still feel emotionally drained. The only completely clear sense I have is that feeling one gets after seeing a truly great film, and with Perks, that feeling seems stronger than for any other work of 2012. I cannot say for sure after just one viewing if this is my favorite film of the year, but it at least stands among the very, very best. I cannot recommend it highly enough.