Coming of age films speak primarily to those caught in the difficult years of high school. But to limit this film to viewers of that age would mean that the rest of us would miss the opportunity to revisit our fears as well as our first loves. It would be to act as though we are not still nursing the wounds or regretting the opportunities we missed. Although we realize that by definition an adolescent doesn’t have the wisdom or experience to navigate the transition from childhood to adult, parents still abandon their kids to a world of their peers in a caldron of high school concoctions. So it is no surprise that when Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel on which this film is based that it was published by MTV and became a best seller among teenagers. A decade later, adapting his original characters to the big screen, Chbosky directs a compelling tale that he describes as partly autobiographical, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Demonstrating not only his ability to write but also to direct, the nuanced dialogue fits the moving depictions of his talented ensemble cast. The self-proclaimed wallflower is a young fifteen-year-old just starting high school named Charlie (Logan Lerman). The youngest child in his family whose father (Dylan McDermott) and mother (Kate Walsh) make cameo appearances in both the film and his life, Charlie is a lost child. Hinting that he struggled in junior high and is fearful of high school, he hoped that his big brother’s football friends would accept him or that his sister who was a senior at the school would admit him into her friendship circle. Neither occurred and he finds himself eating alone.
But into this void comes an unusual senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller). A flamboyant presence whose brash confidence takes over the freshman shop class he has with Charlie, the two soon become friends. But on the night their friendship begins at their school’s football game, Charlie is introduced to Patrick’s step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Inviting him to a party following the game, they introduce Charlie to a group of friends who consider themselves to be the misfits of the school. They adopt him as one of their own and it is then that Charlie begins the painful process of becoming an adult.
This developmental journey is presented in a series of letters that Charlie writes to an anonymous person. The journey reveals some deep and enduring pain from almost everyone’s past. Some of this pain came from the sins of others who used and abused them. Other pain came as a result of their own sins as they tried to find their way. But the pain they experienced needs the healing intervention of loving relationships, professional care and a forgiving God. Charlie began to heal in his group of friends as he experiences acceptance and love for the first time in his life. He is forced into professional care when his pain erupts into violence against himself and others. Though he is raised as a Catholic, Charlie doesn’t seem to find solace, strength or guidance from his faith but instead seems just as willing to receive the bread of the sacrament as an LSD stamp.
The story weaves within it a variety of issues facing youth today. Although the book has been banned from many school districts, the drugs, alcohol, casual sex and homosexuality in the film are presented in realistic and not idealized form. The director purposefully chose to limit the language and nudity in order to get a PG-13 rating, but the themes are far more sophisticated than a young adolescent is ready to explore. The struggles of sexual identity as well as the healing from childhood sexual abuse require a maturity that adulthood most often provides.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The frequency with which childhood sexual abuse occurs is alarming. In this film, both young boys and young girls were used by adults in ways that deeply harmed them. What do you think we can do as a society to better protect our children?
2. The lack of parental interaction with their teenagers is obvious. The only true adult interaction for Charlie is with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). Why do you think Chbosky left parents, pastors and mentors out of the film?
3. When Charlie falls in with a group of seniors who are several years older than he is, he also enters a world in which his innocence is lost when he unwittingly eats his first marijuana brownie and falls in love for the first time. What would you do to prevent such a loss of innocence if your child wants to hang out with students four years older than they are?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.