The Perks of Being a Wallflower ★½

The December Challenge: Film 38

Director - Stephen Chbosky
Writer - Stephen Chbosky
Cast - Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev, Paul Rudd and Johnny Simmons


I’ve never read the novel on which this film is based, nor have I any intention of doing so, and I was well aware before I even sat down to watch it that I was going to struggle to connect with what it had to offer me. I’d read a number of positive reviews and a number of negative ones too (with this particular effort giving me all the warning I really needed…) but nothing could really prepare me for what I was about to witness. In essence, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film that is stuck between two different kinds of self-indulgence; not only does it believe itself to be much more thoughtful and quirky than it actually is but it goes so far as to treat the tragic backstory of its lead character as little more than a plot device through which his social awkwardness can be explained. The impression I got, having sat through the film, is that Chbosky – the person responsible for the novel and this film – wanted us to look at his work and say “Wow! Look how well he’s pushed the boundaries. What an edgy guy!” Whilst I wouldn’t quite call it exploitative, there is a real element of how this emotive subject is handled that is quite reprehensible.

The story of The Perks of Being a Wallflower revolves around a young American boy named Charlie (Lerman) who is about to attend high school for the first time. Charlie is a sweet, mild-mannered and intelligent young man who also happens to be socially awkward and a little distant due to the recent suicide of his best friend. As the film, and Charlie’s school year, progresses he becomes friends with two seniors - Patrick (Miller) and Samantha (Watson) – and ends up becoming a key part of their friendship group. Along the journey, Charlie falls in love with Samantha, though ends up dating a girl named Mary Elizabeth (Whitman), he learns to break out of his shell and he starts to feel like he truly belongs. Alongside Charlie’s story, we follow Patrick and his secret relationship with a jock who is still in the closet (Brad, played by Johnny Simmons), and Sam who is struggling with her feelings for Charlie and the fact that her boyfriend isn’t particularly nice to her. It’s all very predictable and we’ve seen it all before.

Now, the problem with this film is that – with the exception of the ending (which I’ll come to shortly) – it's nothing more than upper middle-class drivel. As soon as the opening credits began to roll, I knew that I was in for an overload of quirk. Charlie spends his time writing in a diary and bemoaning the fact that he’s a bit of an outcast and that he struggles to make friends. We’ve all been there at some point. Where a lot of us haven’t been, however, is living very comfortably in a rich, suburban neighbourhood, in a fancy house with expensive clothing and a family that clearly loves him very much. They might not “get” him but that is nothing new. From then on in we are subjected to a wonderful soundtrack that, unfortunately, exists solely to advertise the indie credentials of the characters, and a bunch of increasingly contrived images and conversations about first World problems and how society just doesn’t understand them. As a social outcast myself, I get where these people are coming from. Alas, the film is so painfully ‘Hollywood’ that I just can’t take it seriously. The outcasts are all flawless, Patrick just so happens to be sleeping with a jock (who is also very attractive) and Charlie is creative and intelligent, rather than being distinctly average like the rest of us. Instead of presenting us with a bunch of relatable and realistic characters, the film gives us a load of people who it is utterly impossible to invest in. Imagine, for a moment, if this film didn’t star Logan Lerman and Emma Watson; would its vast audience of teenage fans like it half as much? I’m not convinced they would…

Worse still, however, is the vulgar solipsism of these people. Charlie is tolerable (thanks, in part, to a genuinely brilliant performance by Lerman, who manages to nail the character’s sensitivity) but Patrick and Sam are so utterly obsessed with their petty issues that it becomes a real chore to sit through. Backstories are developed for both of them that are meant to make us view the characters in a sympathetic light, and I’m in no doubt that these characters have suffered some harrowing experiences in their lives, but this does not excuse just how irritating they are. Sam, for example, declares at one point that she “can’t feel happiness”. Oh please, don’t make me get sick into my own scorn. Have a drink and chill the fuck out, and maybe remember that there are people with actual problems all around the World. There really is nothing more annoying than American teenagers who think that the World revolves around them.

Of course, what films like this always aim to do is convince their audience that it will all be okay in the end and that every single person is capable of excellence. As a message it’s all very sweet and nice but it lacks both realism and substance. The explanation for Charlie’s social awkwardness comes about out of nowhere and reeks of lazy storytelling. What is utterly reprehensible about it, however, is that it comes and goes in just under five minutes. No consideration is made for the psychological effects of what has happened to Charlie and we get absolutely no insight into how the discovery of what happened has affected him as the film reaches its conclusion. This is unpardonable.

The only remotely decent thing about this film is the relationship between Charlie and his English teacher (Paul Rudd). Both characters play off each other nicely and Lerman and Rudd are by far the two best performers in the film. Watson’s performance is shaky and uninspiring whilst Miller’s is uncharacteristically rotten. The attempts at quirkiness all fall flat and the film is, for the most part, a clunking mess that has absolutely nothing to say. The script lacks charm, drama or humour and most of the attempts at any or all of these things tend to feel forced. It’s a shame in a way because there’s probably a very decent story hiding in all the drivel and I genuinely do think that Lerman delivered a beautifully understated performance. Nevertheless, these small strengths are outweighed by a ceaseless stream of hokum.

At one point towards the start of the film, Patrick says “these assholes, they actually think they’re being original.” My thoughts exactly mate. My thoughts exactly…

Oh, and one more thing; the fact that these people don’t recognise David Bowie’s Heroes is just ludicrous.

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