DIRECTED BY STEPHEN CHBOSKYSTARRING: LOGAN LERMAN, EMMA WATSON, EZRA MILLER, MAE WHITMAN, NINA DOBREV, DYLAN McDERMOTT, KATE WALSH, ZANE HOLTZ, REECE THOMPSON with MELANIE LYNSKEY, JOAN CUSACK and PAUL RUDD
‘the Perks of being a Wallflower’ has a refrain that could make you wonder if John Woo made it. We accept the love we think we deserve. These lines are said twice in the film, one of them to the person they were originally intended for. Paul Rudd says it the first time as Mr. Anderson, the High-School English teacher who takes it upon himself to bring a protégé to the right path. His sad eyes speak of warmth and sincerity that remind us that his likeability as a comic had little to do with the goofball self he often portrays, but the person inside him who calls out through his eyes, once in a while, like a bathtub with lather and temperature that could be called just about right.
Freshman Logan Lerman says it the second time, playing Charlie – a freshman as well. He makes friends out of the audience whom he writes to on a typewriter that had been gifted to him for that purpose. He would make for an excellent existential archetype, if you think about it. He lives so he can narrate his story to us, the audience – in much the same way that Lester Burnham (from American Beauty) dies so he can tell us all about his death.
The line is thrown, initially, in an outburst when the frenzied teen summons enough courage to ask his favourite teacher the question that has been bothering him for a while. Why do nice people always pick the wrong people to date? We have seen/heard people say/feel the same thing, in real life as well as in films. The guy played by Jason Biggs in Loser, for instance. Peter Parker when he’s not Spiderman feels the same way about Mary Jane Watson. It’s the classic Hollywood love-triangle plot. Writers write it in so people wouldn’t hesitate to sympathize with their lead characters. We sympathize with Charlie for much the same reason; and also because Logan Lerman shares his dread, finding himself humbled by the weight of such a big performance that he finds he can do it after all, much ado intended.
The second time – and we’re still talking about the line, by the way – is when you find it has a whole new connotation. It comes at a time when we know more about these characters, these people, that their suffering takes a different turn. Barely ten minutes are left in the film when the line is thrown and the film is opened; how much responsibility can the ending take? These are people who know no hatred, which is ironically the source-point of their frustrations. This is a film that reveres suffering, be it in the punk-Buddhist girl who hides herself behind badly done hair and dark lipstick and an immersion in mindless ambition; be it the English teacher whom we don’t see much of, who could have a whole arc like that in Half Nelson going on in his life for all we know; the happy-go-lucky homosexual friend and his closeted lover-boy who has to endure so much to keep his precious jock-life intact.
Deep down, all these people strive to be better beings – so much so that they crack under the pressure. Every one of them. And the film on its part advertises the beauty in letting go – much like It’s kind of a Funny Story, which was about self-inflicted pressure due to parental expectations – both being vivid adaptations of young adult novels from the recent past. If I had to make a personal comment here, I find that all young adult writing seems to be dealing with the same thing – consciousness. It hurts to be aware of what you can’t cure. And that hurt seems like a promising central premise of any given story. The very mention of the Catcher in the Rye in this film, for instance, is both an inside-joke and a clear sign of where things are heading.
Or the soundtrack, if you’d like a look. ‘the Perks of being a Wallflower’ finds beauty in music that glorifies pain. What it calls good taste – a term that Sam (Emma Watson) keeps repeating throughout the film – is in sadness. The girl in It’s Kind of a Funny Story talked about Ian Curtis. Sam here talks about Nick Drake and the Smiths (she calls them the best breakup band), even though the final touch has to be the significance of the David Bowie song Heroes to this film. These are kings and queens through their very own night-vision goggles – the same goggles they had used, previously, to place themselves in darkness, a shadow they had cast upon themselves. And they go through their rituals of pain and suffering, some of which is irreparable (you can’t change where you come from, but you can change where you go, says Dr. Burton – Joan Cusack – who contributes with her one-liner to match Mr. Anderson) only to liberate themselves in a physical show of grace under pressure that would render Hemingway and Bertolucci (the Dreamers) proud.
I’m aware I’ve talked about a half a dozen films until this point without really telling you what ‘the Perks of being a Wallflower’ is about. That could be because I’m struggling with giving it credit for being itself. In its own words, to accept the film, I should think I deserved it. But what happens if I felt I deserve more? Let me tell you more about the film so you can decide for yourself. It starts as a film about a boy with a disturbing past that causes him to be confined to self rather than open to social interaction. It takes him a while before he makes an effort to shake hands, the other boy being someone who’s popularly called Nothing (Ezra Miller) – the butt of his own joke. He’s called Patrick, otherwise, and it is through him that Charlie (the boy) gets to meet Sam, who looks like the usual short-haired girl with a boy’s name, like Alex from Bridge to Terebithia – she’s not too far from her either, given her character and the role she plays in dear Charlie’s life. Sam is Patrick’s step-sister, their relationship affected in no way by that detail. There is no Cruel Intentions motif – Patrick, quite conveniently, is gay, which also adds one more to the wallflower lot, as they call themselves.
In spite of the gay friend, there is not a single moment when the film compromises on its seriousness – probably the first time I liked a film for not wanting to be funny. Even it’s Kind of a Funny Story pulled a couple of gags. Not this one, though. There is no weak sibling character who fools around; no parent trying to lighten things up a bit. The siblings are, in fact, perhaps the strongest characters for they have made it to the grown-up world already as the rest of them hope to get there someday. Charlie’s sister Candice (Nina Dobrev) – a senior in high-school – deals with an abusive relationship with yet another marginalized individual called pony-tail Derek. The door of her room open a crack, Charlie sees Derek hit a high on frenzy and throw a full-blown smack across Candice’s face. The next scene shows her kissing him goodbye at the doorstep. When he confronts her about it, she tells him he wouldn’t understand.
A similar instance is when Charlie – officially dating Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) – kisses Sam in a game of ‘Truth or Dare’. Both women are outraged, which has Charlie wonder why. Patrick, another of the film’s more well-defined and beautiful characters, puts a hand on his shoulder and tells Charlie that these are girls who have seen a lot of guys before him, and that he wouldn’t understand what it means in terms of significance of his own actions.
‘the Perks of Being a Wallflower’, that way, is beautiful in moments. And it has some characters that genuinely care, backed by solid performances that show it. Logan Lerman gives life to Charlie like Alex Shaffer did to Kyle Timmons in Win Win. He wins our attention in the scene where he matter-of-factly confides to Sam on how his friend shot himself. Much like how she wins ours when she describes her first kiss. The beauty of that scene shall not be understood until towards the end – something I cursed the film for. We’ve both gone through the same things, Charlie tells Sam. It says so much about the film. Like Katradhu Thamizh in comparison. This is not just the story of an introverted high-school kid. And even if it was, it only speaks of the layers that might lie underneath a person’s introversion, or extroversion (in Sam’s case). I shall not tell you what was a part of Charlie’s life to save you some suspense, but I think you can understand what it might be that could’ve brought a whole new dimension to the film that seems unacceptable given the fact that the entire lead-up seems to have taken us away from it. It is given away in a moment that has us think we have been deceived, for this could’ve been a great movie, but it chose not to be. Kind of like Charlie himself, if you think about it.
Otherwise, ‘the Perks of being a Wallflower’ is your typical high-school film with critical acclaim that comes as a twist to the tale. It discusses the future – admissions, aging, etc. – something that Election and It’s Kind of a Funny Story tried to touch. There is talk about SATs and applications and how that contributes to most of the frustration in the life of these characters – which is not all, though, for all of them come with additional baggage as well. It has an 80s soundtrack – the best way to set the tone, stoke the fire and make-out in front of it. Homosexuality has come to be a recent theme, as well as casual handling of the same. Easy A is a strong example where Olive Penderghast and her gay (male) friend pretend like they’re having sex behind closed doors so he can still remain in the closet. Here, Patrick makes out with Alice (Erin Wilhelmi), a straight girl with her eyes on film school, talking about fag-on-goth action. A line that’s in better taste would be when he calls a bunch of presents he receives as so gay, I thought I might have given it to myself.
There’s sex, there’s drugs; even rock-n-roll (David Bowie – duh!) – a stage adaptation of the Rocky Horror Picture show plays a significant part in the film’s initial frivolousness, kind of like the elusive rock concert in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, or the extended music-class jam of the Queen song Under Pressure in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Parents are kept in the distance as teenagers take over all possible roles, including inhabiting an exclusive world of LSD and Merlot wine without the legal angle brought into it. Even a film like Superbad did well to criminalize it, even if to parody itself on that front thereon. And then, of course, other than the girl with the fairy lights around her, everyone else is ridiculous as a choice for a girlfriend. Like Mary Elizabeth, who is possessive, fretful, clingy; a burden, in short.
What could have been a film as impacting as – and I’m going to give it away by making this comparison, but what the hell – Trust (2010), fizzles away into something relatively bleaker and haphazard; even less of a shocker than, say, the Lovely Bones for the simple reason that it didn’t want to take the skeleton out of the closet before a dramatic last act that only had me blame the film more, for having not played it closer to the body; much closer.