Everyone I know who loves film has had a similar experience, which usually occurs when they are young, probably in middle school. At that point in their cinematic careers they enjoy watching movies, enjoy spending single-sex sleepovers on their stomachs in front of the screen, and afterwards enjoy repeating back and forth lines absurd or poignant or both.
But then, often without meaning to, they stumble upon a film that’s different. That, for lack of a better term, “speaks to them.” This film has to involve teenagers and it has to be set in high school or camp or the summer after graduation. The film knocks these future cinephiles out cold. It takes all the ennui, the longing, the newly gained feelings of sexuality, the sheer joy and the unending awkwardness that is young life, and it makes them talk.
This film shows them that it’s cool, even wonderful, to be weird. To not understand yourself. To understand yourself too well, and hate everyone around you for it. To want to get out of your hometown so bad, but to be absolutely terrified of what lies beyond the borders of your childhood. This movie romanticizes all your feelings of not fitting in, and makes you feel like a rebel instead of a dweeb.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is this movie. I can imagine that, for many teenagers, it speaks to them. It also speaks to anyone else who’s been a lonely kid in high school. So, everyone.
The film is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his 1999 novel of the same name. It follows 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) through his first year of high school.
In middle school, Charlie “got bad.” Perks doesn’t go into explicit detail, but insinuates that he suffered from some sort of depression or mental illness.
On Charlie’s first day he has nowhere to sit in the cafeteria. The only friend he makes is his English teacher (Paul Rudd). Similarly familiar tropes happen, until Charlie ends up sitting next to Patrick (Ezra Miller) at a football game. Patrick and his friend Sam (Emma Watson, in her first substantial post-Potter role) change everything. They take Charlie in, get him high, and introduce him to the Wallflowers, a fantastical group of misfits who, finally, get him. So perfectly damaged, over-it a group could only exist in the movies, but they’re endearing nonetheless.
Particularly notable is Miller, who plays Patrick with gleeful abandon that is tempered by moments of profound sorrow. Patrick could have turned into a caricature, the lonely gay kid who masks his anguish with kooky behavior. But Chbosky and Miller make him better than that, adding purpose to Patrick’s behavior and imbuing him with a deep, deep love for his ragtag companions.
Perks’ plot isn’t necessarily original—though the ending packs a punch the audience certainly won’t see coming. It’s not original because it’s set in high school, where the same events happen every year. Homecoming, graduation, freshmen getting bullied. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. What’s important is that, for the kids for whom this movie was made, it can be an awakening.
My own awakening was called Empire Records. It was made in 1995—though I didn’t see it until some years later—and starred a slew of actors who would go on to have substantial careers, Renée Zellweger chief among them. Empire Records is about a group of young people who work in an old, independent record store. They love music, they love each other, and they are disaffected, angry, lost and beautiful. I saw the movie for the first time with my best friend when I was 13. After the film’s 90 minutes were up, we just sat for a minute. Then we popped it right back into the VCR for a repeat viewing.
Empire Records was a flop (though it has since developed a cult following), and the critics were unimpressed. But to me, it will always be my first favorite movie, the film that taught me to want to stick out, rather than fit in. I’m sure The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all inspired similar “first-time” declarations of love. The Perks of Being a Wallflower can be added to this list of great high school movies for Miller’s performance alone. Watson is lovely as well, and in many ways embodies a less extreme, perhaps more relatable high school experience. When she stands in the back of Patrick’s pickup truck, singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” out loud to the night, it’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful and alive.