The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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.

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Patrick (Ezra Miller, center) is the heart of this tremendous coming-of-age film.

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.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

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.

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Next to Normal

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 1, 2012

"Next to Normal" is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

“Next to Normal” is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Free Play Theater Cooperative’s rock musical Next to Normal, which ran this past weekend in Schwartz Hall, examines the life of a suburban family fighting against matriarch Diana’s (Abigail Clarke ’12) chronic mental illness.

Diana is bipolar (though at one point she explains, “Bipolar doesn’t quite cover it.”) and experiences bursts of manic energy. However, she tends to feel anxious and depressed most of the time. Mental health is not often the subject matter of musical theater, a genre known for its incessant good cheer. But Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, uses the form to its advantage, allowing the characters to express in lyrics what they cannot say to one another directly.

The majority of Next to Normal is conducted in song, rather than through dialogue. Additionally, the characters often sing complex vocal arrangements consisting of different lyrics, which combine to make one complex sound. Director David Benger ’14 dexterously staged number after number—37 in all—often without pause between the songs. Next to Normal takes on social issues, lambasting the pharmaceutical industry and the malaise of suburban America. As such, the writing could have veered off into preaching, but the show is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Clarke (who was also the production’s vocal director) played the complex role of Diana with simplicity and elegance. Her desperation for a “normal life” was palpable and heartbreaking. It was Jared Greenberg ’12 as Diana’s son Gabe, however, who truly stole the show. While I won’t reveal the play’s central revelation, of which Gabe is the focus, I will say that Greenberg was perfectly suited to the part.

Gabe may speak a few lines of dialogue, but I don’t recall them. Rather, the character sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him. Additionally, Greenberg was rarely still on stage, instead leaping, twisting and bopping to every song—his movements nearly balletic in form.

I found Gabe to be, if not Next to Normal’s villain, then at least the embodiment of the family’s torment. He was often crouched, gargoyle-like and ready to pounce, on the stage’s second level. In “I’m Alive,” the show’s most electric number, he suddenly springs down into the main level, proving that he is, indeed, bursting with life.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Dan (Justy Kosek ’14), Diana’s endlessly patient husband, is the crumbling rock in the sea of swirling, overwhelming emotions that drenches the show. While Kosek could not quite match the other performers in terms of vocal ability, his portrayal of a lost soul clinging to a promise made 20 years ago was wonderfully depressed. Mental illness, like all diseases, affects not only the sufferers but their families as well. In the song “I’ve Been,” Dan tries to explain to his ailing wife why he’s remained with her all these years. He utters the crushing line, “Mine is just a slower suicide,” with agonizing acceptance that defines his adult life, and the audience’s hearts break.

Diana’s pharmacologists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (both played by Dotan Horowitz ’12) are similarly stumped, though of course they are not as invested as Diana’s family in the outcome of her treatment. The Doctors serve primarily as Kitt and Yorkey’s mouthpieces to address the everyday evils of over-drugging patients and electroshock therapy. Though the roles are laced with over-the-top antics, I found it problematic that Dr. Madden places Diana’s cure in her own hands. He implores her to, “Make up your mind to be well.” Kitt and Yorkey are right: Vicodin and lithium may not be the answer, but victim blaming isn’t either.

Dan and Diana’s other child, Natalie (Sarah Hines ’15) plays off her father’s need to believe with feelings of fury, abandonment and self-centered loneliness. Natalie puts up a sarcastic, over-achieving front in order to cope with the ground zero that is her home life. Her boyfriend Henry (Nick Maletta ’13), a quiet stoner who sees past Natalie’s hard shell, is Next to Normal’s only fully likeable character. Paradoxically, he’s also the least fleshed out. The most we hear about his back-story is a throwaway line about how his mother is “in denial” about his drug use. Maletta possesses a strong, clear voice, necessary for Henry’s falsetto solos. I only wish that he and Hines had more chemistry on stage. Hines plays Natalie well, but so willfully that it didn’t appear she really needed a boyfriend to get through, even as she teeters perilously close to the brink herself.

Next to Normal is a powerful, gut-wrenching look at living with the invisible, uncontrollable monster named depression. Kitt and Yorkey won several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their play. It may almost be too good—after seeing Saturday’s performance, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else. The haunting lyrics followed me out of Schwartz Hall and hung over me like a personal raincloud for the rest of the day.