There’s a scene in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in which the Janet Weiss character seduces the muscle-bound Rocky through song and physical gestures, none more overt than when she places his hands on her breasts and lets him fondle them playfully. At a midnight theater in Pittsburgh, where Rocky Horror plays every weekend, a high school senior named Sam (Emma Watson) assumes the role of Janet as part of an ensemble floorshow cast. One night, her newest friend, a freshman and fledgling writer named Charlie (Logan Lerman), acts as understudy in the role of Rocky; the point at which the two must reenact the onscreen seduction is nearly ruined when he hesitates to put his hands on Sam’s chest. She gets him to comply just in the nick of time, and the rest of the night goes smoothly. He even gets a standing ovation when the film ends and the cast members take their bows.
We’re initially led to believe that Charlie’s moment of hesitation stems from natural adolescent shyness. Indeed, he’s introverted and socially awkward, having never touched or kissed a girl, let alone had feelings for one. But the more we learn about him, the clearer it becomes that something much darker is at the root of the problem. He has been severely damaged. The recent suicide of his only friend months before the start of high school is a contributing factor, but earlier traumas hang over him like heavy rainclouds. His is a perpetual cycle of shame and guilt, resulting in bouts of blacking out. His immediate family knows that he’s mentally fragile, but they don’t know the full extent of how he came to be that way. It’s not that he doesn’t love them, nor that they don’t love him; it’s merely a matter of mutual misunderstanding stemming from a lack of communication.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by writer/director Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, is a deeply involving coming of age story, in large part because it examines mature subject matter in a way that’s tactful and compelling. Charlie is not the only damaged character; Sam has a rather promiscuous history, beginning with a very inappropriate encounter with her father’s boss when she was only eleven. And then there’s Sam’s stepbrother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), also a senior. Although he’s openly gay, he’s in a secret relationship with a closeted student, whose largely unseen father is alarmingly homophobic. Outwardly, Patrick passes himself off as a wisecracking extrovert – outgoing, loud, the life of the party, and taking it in stride every time one of his classmates refers to him by the nickname Nothing. Within, he’s in a tremendous amount of pain.
Putting the three of them together, given the tremendous hardships they have all faced, one would expect the film to be a shamelessly soapy melodrama. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than conjure up traumas for the sake of emotionally manipulating the audience, Chbosky cares enough about his characters to let them develop realistically. We can actually invest in them. Not all of us can relate to their past experiences, but there is something universal about feeling different and isolated and the healing that comes with finding the right people. Therein lies the meaning of the title, which I grant you sounds like a contradictory statement; the characters are by and large suffering, and yet they take comfort in the fact that, by being in each other’s lives, they’re no longer suffering alone. They have attracted the people they need in order to get them through the difficult times.
The story is narrated by Charlie in the form of letters he writes to an anonymous friend. We see him bond with Sam, Patrick, and their circle of friends. This would include Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a punk girl and a Buddhist who becomes annoyingly clingy when she comes to believe that Charlie is her boyfriend. We see him form a friendly relationship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), who allows him to read a series of novels that weren’t assigned and write essays on them. We see him interact with his family, especially his sister (Nina Dobrev), who’s clearly in an abusive relationship with the high school football star. We see him struggle with his past relationship with his aunt (Melanie Lynskey), who’s only seen in very fragmented flashback sequences. When the film begins, he claims she was the only person who understood him and that she was his favorite person in the world.
All descriptions of the novel say that the story takes place in the early 1990s. The film doesn’t give us a period of time, although the early ‘90s would be consistent with the alternative soundtrack and the fact that most of the lead characters trade mix tapes rather than CDs or MP3 files. There’s also not a cell phone to be seen in any of its 103 minutes. Perhaps that would partially account for why it feels so much more personal and introspective; no one is busy droning into a piece of technology or texting one of their friends in unintelligible English abbreviations. Then again, I think it mostly comes from the fact that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not intended to be about one specific time or one specific place. It’s intended to be about friendship, first loves, coming to terms with painful events in our lives, and simply getting from one day to the next.
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