Film Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Chbosky's Children

It’s rare for a novelist to adapt and direct an adaptation of their work, yet Stephen Chbosky has done just that with this bit of bildungsroman. It’s rarer still for a film to make a promise that it so resolutely fails to deliver. What exactly are the perks of being a wallflower? Chbosky’s as short on answers as he is on vowels.

Entry into this dysfunctional sect, headed by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, is contingent on a history of abuse, either carefully stowed or heavily repressed. Hating yourself is mandatory; so too having an identity crisis that you compensate for by trying too hard – affectations galore, or too little, in which case you end up like Logan Lerman’s Charlie – a sweet kid with no discernable personality whatsoever.

To the well-adjusted and fully rounded mind, bullying is a nigh on incomprehensible phenomenon: the practice of sociopaths who mysteriously, deviantly, get off on cruelty. In introducing us to Watson’s band of saccharine misfits, Chbosky seems to be challenging us to empathise with the schoolyard antagoniser for the first time. This wasn’t what we signed on for; we were supposed to feel better about our anomic bent; this was billed as a celebration of difference; yet there are moments in this movie when you want to bind Charlie to a chair and force him to eat his mix tapes.

Miller and co. have the bare-faced gall to mock Watson’s pretentious boyfriend for spouting shit like “I don’t write poetry, it writes me”, while vomiting up similar platitudinous gunk – “welcome to the island of misfit toys”, “I feel infinite”, etc. The movie feels potentially infinite in these moments; you want to reach through the screen, shake these living art works, with their ornate phraseology and carefully chosen accessories, and say ‘this is why happy people won’t talk to you!’

Of course in this movie you’d be portrayed as a middling, narrow-minded waste of bone and tissue for thinking such a thing but such stereotyping betrays Chbosky’s ignorance of that constituency. Secretly we all yearn for a little anarchy; a touch of colour and imagination in our humanoids, but self-awareness, an irony gland – that’s the stuff – not this kind of nook conformity rebranded as militant individualism.

From the normally reliable adults down – witness Paul Rudd as an unbearably earnest English teacher whose cynicism has been checked at the studio door, plus a meek Joan Cusack – the film’s populated with characters existing in an arid world: a place where people get stoned and crave a milkshake, where everyone’s bright but curiously witless, where a connoisseur of ‘80’s music has never heard of David Bowie or Heroes, one of his greatest hits.

That isn’t to say this beige flick, destined to become the movie of choice for groups of girls on sleepovers, doesn’t have its merits. There are uniformly excellent performances, particularly from Ezra Miller who inhabits his character in much the same way he wowed in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Emma Watson, the only useful by-product of the Harry Potter franchise, who’s graceful and vulnerable here; the kind of girlfriend every teenage boy would have wanted until they discovered her affection was rooted in warped sexuality. Seriously though Emma, you’ve never heard Heroes? Really?

Directed by: Steven Chbosky

Country: US

Year: 2012

Running Time: 103 mins

Certificate: 12A for Rocky Horror, poor clock making and Tom Savini.


7 Responses

  1. Pretty much echoes my own thoughts

  2. James says:

    Saw the movie yesterday and reading this review, I think the reviewer did not get the movie. Platitudes? That’s what adolescence is all about and looking back from a distance, that’s what makes our teenage years (and this movie) painstakingly hilarious.Young teenagers that are impressed intimidated and at the same time hesitantly amused (“poetry writes me” – great acting by Logan Lerman in this scene) by the hilariously stupid and absolutely pathetic comments of older peers. Yes, the David Bowie thing was a bit awkward but I remember, that in the pre-spotified world of the1980s it took me almost 1,5 Years to find out about a band called Talking Heads (despite embarrasing effords like singing publicly to amused older record store owners shaking their head). I do not have a problem with my teenage years, they are long gone and that is why I found this movie very sweet, engaging and also deep enough for adults and teenagers alike (even in its more kitsch moments). I also liked a lot, that the subplot (abuse) was hinted and not thrown in your face, that it remained unanswered and was left open for interpretation. “What exactly are the perks of beeing a Wallflower” the reviewer asks. I don’t think the film has to answer that, if you don’t mind (considering you are relaxed enough about your own teenage years and feel more nostalgic than disturbed when watching a highschool movie) to make up your own mind and don’t need to have every scene explained to you, go see this movie it is a very entertaining and sweet little film with great script, superb directing and an amazing cast that acts really well.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      James, I got it. I got it in both eyes. I think you’ve misread the movie for a couple of reasons. Taking your second point, first, I was speaking figuratively when I referred to the title as a question. It’s not literally a question – it’s an assertion, a matter-of-fact statement that tells us that we’re going to vicariously experience said perks. For this to work we have to buy in to Chbosky’s perspective; we have to like his characters as much as he does. Well, you did and I didn’t. I found them to self-absorbed and bland. Now, you’ll say, ‘but teenagers are self-absorbed!’ – so they are, but to give you a contrast to think about, consider John Hughes’ teen movies. He was astute in tapping into the adolescent experience – he perfectly captured all the malice, cruelty and power plays between groups, but he gave his characters smart mouths and wit, that’s the difference.

      In contrast, Chbosky’s kids are full of shit. Unlike Hughes’ brood, there’s never a moment when they become aware of it. You suggest the platitudes are Chbosky nostalgically capturing teen speak, maybe for comment effect, and it’s true for the “poetry writes me” line, but it’s certainly not true when Charlie spouts stuff like, “I feel infinate”. We’re not supposed to laugh at him, we’re supposed to share in his moment. In other words, the target audience are told to mark it down as profundity. Consequently, the fact he’s talking bollocks is a real problem.

      As for Bowie, well I agree that at the time the film is set, 1991/92, Sam couldn’t Shazam it, but surely the point is that the song is 15 years old at this point and the character is a huge fan of British music. She knows The Beatles, The Smiths, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but she doesn’t know David Bowie? Perhaps the mystery of the song title, and indeed artist, would have been more credible if a) the song wasn’t known to everyone in the audience and b) the character wasn’t a music junkie. That takes you out of the film and anything that does that is usually a mistake.

  3. Eric says:

    I think the “I feel infinite” line is profound. To me, this is a story of loss. Charlie keeps suffering these awful endings to relationships – important people in his life keep coming and going (his friend, his aunt). When he finally finds Patrick and Sam, he feels he may have found the end to that cycle. This friendship and the love he feels for these people might be infinite. Finally. And that’s a big deal.

  4. Brandia says:

    Thank you for this review. When I checked the movie’s high score on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought the whole world had completely lost its ability to call bs on the desperately “unique”. After finding you, friend, I am reassured that it’s still only 90 percent of humanity with a lame sense of humor, etc. People with substance don’t have to try so hard to affect a personality. Unfortunately, most of the world lives on the surface and has way too much time on its hands to “reflect”.

  5. Gary says:

    I enjoyed the movie despite the Bowie absurdity. But, let’s be truthful here, there are no perks to being a wallflower.
    Lerman, Miller, and Watson are all terrific, and the film has moments of genuine pathos and charm, alongside the contrivances.

    To be the loner, the outsider, is a hellish, horrible existence that in most cases ends in either life-long misery or suicide. That is the fate of boys like Charlie. I know, because I was/am a wallflower (largely the result of a hermit-mother who cut me off from social interaction).

    The film I felt downplayed the searing, heartbreaking loneliness of being alone in a crowded room. It resonated with me, except for the fact that Charlie seemed mildly lonely rather than painfully so.

    Have you noticed how movies always show loners finding friends, when in real life, for many “Charlie’s”, this never happens through their entire life-time.

  6. Jason says:

    I actually enjoyed this movie, despite agreeing with some of the comments made in the review.

    My main beef with the movie was just with how easily we transformed this “wallflower” character. As others commented, most wallflowers remain so the rest of their lives. Some do change of course, but not as easily or conveniently I think as what is depicted in the movie. This transformation deserves more attention than the movie gives it.

    The plot gets hijacked by the whole molestation / mental breakdown sub-story at some point, which I think is less relatable than the “wallflower” theme. With this I think the movie lost its focus and dabbled in melodrama.

    Like the reviewer, I also found the two supporting stars a little too much. As I watched that initial dance at the school formal that looked like they were professionals (rather than awkward teenagers) I couldn’t help but snicker. These social butterfly uber cool people are supposed to be the “misfits”? Really? Why is it the supposedly uncool people in these movies would be the coolest guys / gals in any high school in the world outside of Holywood?