I’m always late to wonderful things, such as 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’m a sucker for a great coming-of-age drama, and this is a great coming-of-age drama. The film was written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who adapted his own 1999 novel of the same name, which is so cool.
The film follows Charlie (played by Logan Lerman), who is starting his freshman year of high school, a most pivotal moment for any kid, but especially Charlie, given his clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s recently been released from a mental institution. The precipitating moment for his PTSD and depression won’t be revealed until later. All we know at this point is that his aunt has died.
Along the way, Charlie makes friends with Sam (played by Emma Watson) and Patrick (played by Ezra Miller), who help him to live a little and, at least at first, leave behind his PTSD. He also has an English teacher, Mr. Anderson (played by Paul Rudd), who believes in him and gives him books to read. That teacher believing in him is all that it takes to make a huge difference in my view. A good teacher (or a bad one) can be such a lingering moment in someone’s life.
The narrative thrust comes to us as Charlie writes to an unnamed friend, telling his story. Sam and Patrick are dealing with their own issues as well. Sam falls into bad relationships and drank too much when she was younger. Patrick is gay, but dating the quarterback secretly, and if the quarterback’s father finds out about it, he’ll basically kill his son.
All of which brings to the forefront the thematic element coursing through the film: “Why do good people let themselves get treated so badly? We accept the love we think we deserve.”
There’s a lot going on in the film from teenage depression, drinking, dealing with one’s sexuality, abuse, and so on, but I think that overall idea “we accept the love we think we deserve” underpins all of that. Whether we cognitively make that choice or are lied to by our trauma, we “accept the love we think we deserve,” manifest in platonic friendships, romantic ones or even familial ones. Actually, in the case of this story, especially familial ones.
Lerman, Watson, and Miller all bring such an earnestness to their characters that are the hallmark of any great teen coming-of-age story. You believe these characters. You believe they are struggling through the malaise that is a budding adult.
And of course, I’m a sucker for a sappy romantic story. Throughout the film, Charlie is trying to show Sam is capable of being loved better. That she doesn’t need to “accept” those prior bad relationships. Then they kiss and get together and MY HEART.
There are two moments in particular that standout to me from this film: First, when Patrick confronts the football player (after the football player’s dad caught them together and beat him to a pulp) at the cafeteria, wanting him to stand up for Patrick. All the other kids keep calling him “nothing.” Instead, the football player calls him “nothing” and a “faggot.” It was hard to watch. A brawl ensues, where Charlie saves Patrick. Now, that was awesome.
Secondly, the ending where we learn that not only did Charlie’s aunt die in a brutal car crash, but she was sexually abusing him. He’s dealt with whether he wanted her to die because of it. And that all seems to inch him to the precipice of killing himself.
Thankfully, his sister, older brother and parents are mindful and help him. In fact, they didn’t even know about the aunt. I’m getting chills just writing this, but something I really love about this film is how supportive the family is. His siblings genuinely care about him and are there for him, like at the end when he’s re-committed to the mental institution. I’m so glad this film didn’t end in a suicide.
That said, I would love to see a follow-up film that tackled what became of Patrick. He was messed up after that explosion with the football player, and I would be interested to see how he navigated that mental hell.
Overall, if you missed this one when it came out, as I did, I highly recommend it. It hits all the right buttons, and now, as I get older and older, it hits some of those nostalgic buttons, too. I also appreciate any film deftly handling mental health issues. That’s a tight rope walk, and Chbosky and the gang nailed it here.
Authentic. That’s the word that comes to mind. Authentic teenagers dealing with authentic problems. Authenticity is the lifeblood of a successful film, and this one downright pulsates with it.