A familiar, if gut-wrenching and ultimately refreshing, take on the trials and tribulations and perks of being a sensitive teenage soul in a world that often seems so very especially well designed to punish those it deems too sensitive to its cruelty and its beauty. We’re in high school again. There are the requisite bullies. And the requisite cameo appearances of young adult literature’s greatest hits: Cathcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. Paul Rudd appears as the friendly English teacher. It’s a solid choice.
I’m happy to say that, before too long, the film drifts away from the familiar, or perhaps it just drifts deeper into it. This film doesn’t force its characters into standard narratives. It doesn’t accept the stories so often told. Of misfits and jocks and bullies and parents. It doesn’t accept what the world believes about love. Not because it doesn’t believe in love. But because it wants to finds its own path towards understanding what it means that so many of us, for so many reasons, only ever learn to accept the love we think we deserve.
It stars Logan Lerman as Charlie, Ezra Miller as his friend Patrick, and a luminous Emma Watson as Sam. It is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who literally wrote the book on the perks of being a wallflower. I don’t know of that many other examples of authors writing and directing the film adaptations of their work. Considering the effort involved in translating what works in prose to what works on film, it makes the success of this film all the more magnificent.
In lesser films, I think, there might have been a revenge plot against the bullies. There might have been a refusal to let go of the narrative impetus to win-the-love-of-the-girl-or-boy-or-whatever. Though Charlie and Sam kiss, more than once, that’s not the end of this film, because it was never the point. The point is Charlie learning to wrestle with his own pain and in so doing, perhaps, learning how to not be overwhelmed by the pain of others.
There is a scene, at one point, where Charlie explodes in violence. He asks, later, “You’re not scared of me?” And we are, a little bit. And Sam is, as well. But she doesn’t say so. Because she’s not, really. And neither are we. No more than we are scared of anyone. We all have the capacity to betray each other. We all have our reasons. A lesser film might not accept the ways we betray each other, and so it would not know what it really means to learn to love and be loved in return.
In the end, Charlie visits a doctor. Things got bad. But his friends visit. His sister and brother visit. Charlie says he doesn’t know how to deal with pain. But he’s learning. There isn’t really an answer. There can’t be. But there is hope. And there is driving down a dark tunnel with your friends singing along with David Bowie. There are perks, you see, to being.
That truth–that we accept the love we think we deserve–spoken by Charlie at one point, is as true of moviegoers as it is true of anyone. A lot of people, I suspect, accept that movie blockbusters are supposed to be dumb and that romantic comedies are supposed to, in one way or other, uphold the status quo. They’re commercial enterprises after all. What can you expect? I’ve always thought this spoke more about the filmgoer than it did the films to which they went. Not because Hollywood blockbusters aren’t often dumb, or romantic comedies not often so very quo, but because I don’t think we should ever stop being disappointed in the world. Disappointment is a prerequisite for wonder.
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