An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world. -imdb.com
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is yet another coming-of-age film, this time not brought to us by John Hughes, but instead by Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky has taken his book and created a film that’s… different than the average teen movie. This is a coming of age film that reflects an entire years worth of growth, not a couple of days or random events. It departs from any semblance of a plot to show the arc of not just one character, but many. It shows real problems from a very specific perspective, and does so very seriously. It takes place not at the time it was released, but 15 years prior. All these things compound to create a film that stands out from its peers in its presentation, even if its themes and motifs are a mixture of Empire Records and The Breakfast Club.
The characters are all unique and easily attachable, partly because most of us have known people similar to them, but also because Chbosky takes advantage of every method he can to get you to like them and understand who they are. He uses snappy dialogue and even glorifying the two main supporting characters (Sam and Patrick) to get you to understand that they are awesome. This can be interpreted as a bad translation across mediums (which it is), but also as just Charlie’s perspective. He’s telling the story to us and since he saw them as these elite and special people, that’s how we see them. All the characters get quick simplistic introductions, either through exposition or key dialogue. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but for a character piece it could be considered a flaw. Any and all simplifications are easily compensated by the mostly strong and dynamic performances by the actors who all do their best to make their characters unique, even the purely cliché ones. The characters, particularly Charlie, are seemingly identifiable, because they would be in any other film, but this movie stands its ground and forces you to stop thinking of Charlie as the awkward kid that’s just like you were and instead as a person with his own severe problems. Odds are you won’t be able to identify with his life’s issues, as they are very specific and in fact all the characters here have rich white kid problems. That’s not to say that they don’t happen to other people, but if you’re not a middle class white person the chances of you identifying with these characters and their issues decreases drastically.
There is a years worth of story told here, which in a book is fine, but in a film requires more compression to get it into that 90 minute time slot. Perks picks up the pace by using mostly quick and snappy transitions to move between scenes that seem to have little correlation to each other. This actually works for the most part, as we understand the passage of time and the changes in the characters. These vignettes, for lack of a better term, that the film cuts between are merely presented, not really analyzed or gone into depth on. This is an unfortunate symptom of the compressed time, leaving you to do the analysis if you’re looking for anything more then reflection. Luckily the film knows this, and doesn’t try to do anything more then show you what’s going on. For the amount of plot it has to tell, Perks does a good job of getting that across. That is if you can call it a plot… Perks is more of a collage of different subplots, all with varying degrees of importance. The “main plot” is the romance between Charlie and Sam, but there are large chunks of the film that have little to do with that. This more aimless approach to traversing through a year may be off putting to some expecting a flat out “get to point B” plot or character arc.
The intertwining subplots are an attempt to show that every person has a story. That each student in the hallway and each fan in a crowd is a person with their own problems and own lives. Sometimes it takes a wallflower to see that or the forced clashing of people, like in The Breakfast Club. As I stated before, you have to be within a certain range of people to specifically identify with Charlie and his problems, but a lot of the themes and details surrounding Charlie are what are going to get you to attach to this movie. The concept of the past always affecting you is strongly represented by the Aunt Helen “subplot.” There are the usual high school tropes such as being an outsider, those cliché people that always pop up even in real life, and those school events that are all awkward. These are mainstays of the genre and emotional reaction is instinct, even if we understand how cliché they are. And of course, with all of these movies there’s the “getting away from it all.” Characters throwing away their problems for a carefree laugh with their friends. No past, no future, just a tunnel in-between the two where you are as big as you want to be, even infinite. That’s what being a teen is about. Facing that maturity of adult life and turning away from it, because fuck it you can.
Those internal feelings and experiences of what it’s like to be a teen, to go through high school, to leave high school, and all the times in-between are what make this movie special. It doesn’t hit every universal mark though. While its 90s setting does make it more timeless and cross-generational, it can be off-putting to the current generation who never had those big phones or even used a cassette. The more mature issues it tackles, such as mental illness, child abuse, and homophobia can be alienating as well to anyone whose life wasn’t as dramatic as that. A film like The Breakfast Club will work better on these people because the issues tackled are more basic, but Perks, when it hits home with its audience will surpass others because the issues are more intimate and thus, emotion-evoking.
On an exterior front it’s average because it’s appealing to a specific audience and its conflicted attempts to attract a larger one ultimately fail . On an interior level though, as a reflection (not an analysis, or a dissection, but a reflection) it succeeds better than any other film for its true audience. If you can identify with those feelings, if you knew people like that, if you’ve dealt with these issues then this will have the nostalgic and emotional power of every John Hughes film combined. I dealt with those issues, I felt that way, I knew people like that and I was that observer. Perks doesn’t hit every mark for me, but it hits enough that it pushes itself above the rest and makes the viewing experience one of the most powerful I’ve ever had. Watch it and figure it out for yourself, but if you find yourself discussing afterwards not the general themes, but instead whether or not it portrayed PTSD properly, then this movie wasn’t intended for you.