The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Director / Script: Stephen Chbosky (from his own novel) / Editing: Mary Jo Markey / DoP: Andrew Dunn / Music: Michael Brook
Cast: Logan Lerman / Emma Watson / Ezra Miller / Nina Dobrev / Paul Rudd / Mae Whitman
I get it. But what about the drawbacks?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Plus ça Change, as some would have it. Each rising generation throws-up its own narrative; its own way of looking at – and interpreting – the World and their place in it. And each generation believes that no-one has been there before them, that every new revelation has happened to no-one else. It is the folly of men, that they forget.
Ever since Capitalism was kind enough to foist ‘The Teenager’ upon society, this particular socio-economic group has spent rootless hours gazing at its own navel. From their inception, Teens the world over have (despite the constant threat of being nuked), existed on a diet of Rock ‘n Roll, excess sugar and a fear / suspicion of the opposite sex, often defused & explained by a combination of the former. In-turn, they perform another important social function: being a source of worry to their parents, just as they’d been trouble in their youth, and so on. Plus ça Change.
Perks, originally written as a novel by Chbosky, then adapted and filmed by him, is no exception. Like many books that’d come before, it caught the wave of its generation and – NO! No. No.
All that it caught, was a narrow slice of an American wave, circa 1990-92, whose constituent parts were W.A.S.P.ish. Affluent. Liberal. Indulged. In, err, Pittsburgh. A time before mobile phones but after the Wall had come down: a time of unparalleled optimism, when the U.S. believed with certainty that it’d ‘won’ the Cold War. Ah, simple times…
Chbosky opens his film with an atypical Indie sensibility: plangent guitar noodling over a title sequence showing the inside of a road tunnel, being driven-through at-speed. At night. So far, so many blurry sodium-orange lamps that yearn to be in THX1138 instead.
It’s the first day at High School for his main character – Charlie (Logan Lerman) and it hasn’t taken long for the bullies to latch onto this younger kid, with a hunger for classics of literature and the magic of self-expression through his writing. It’s an admirable trait encouraged by sensitive English teacher Mr Anderson (Paul Rudd, although can you IMAGINE what Keanu’s Mr Anderson might’ve made of this part?). Anyhow, wrong film. Charlie’s then co-opted (or is it kidnapped?) into a circle of older misfits, whose ringleaders are half-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller and Sam (Emma Watson); as Sam herself puts it: ‘Welcome to the Island of Lost Toys’. Well, quite.
Patrick is flamboyantly camp, in a glowing performance from Miller, that burns-up the screen whenever he’s allowed to shine. He’s in a ‘secret’ relationship with Brad, a jock from the school’s football team and someone terrified of his own position, should the truth emerge… By contrast, Patrick’s almost brazen display of sexuality seems at odds with the campus, yet he’s tolerated? Even back in the early Nineties, in this narrow slice of conservative, God-fearing America, I can’t imagine someone like Patrick being tolerated for long. Shows how far we’ve come, but twenty-five years ago? I don’t think so.
I digress. Let’s talk about Sam. The closer she gets to Charlie, the more she wants to be more like a big sister to him: frustratingly, Charlie’s actual big-sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) already has that role covered. It’s all the polar opposite of what pimply youth (and owner of two plums better resembling kiwi-fruits) Charlie actually wants. As if to explain her being blinded to his puppyish ardour, she casually explains that she was once abused by her Dad’s boss and that ever since, she makes ‘bad choices’ with her boyfriends… Wha–?
As if to make the best of a bad job, Charlie starts fumbling around with Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), but his heart’s not in it: and neither is her’s, after a misguided game of Truth or Dare reveals his true intentions. Oops.
Oh, and then there’s the fallout of Patrick being discovered in-flagrante with Brad and a revelation about an ‘Unfortunate Event’ in Charlie’s past that puts him in hospital to combat his depression and… And… I was left thinking ‘Where’s John Hughes when you need him?’ This farrago is no Pretty In Pink, that’s for sure. Where’s the soul; the cockiness of Ferris Bueller or the nods-to-true enlightenment of The Breakfast Club? Nope. Didn’t think so.
Perks is nothing but a coming-of-age story with an occasional V.O. and flashbacks that allow glimpses into a tight circle of misfits who’ve banded together on the tides of life, like so much flotsam in the Sargasso. They aren’t screwy enough to go Truly Mad and do something reckless with automatic weapons, but are instead blessed / cursed with seemingly absent parents who leave their kids free to mope about their McMansions in the search for hidden meaning and substance to their otherwise empty existences: why else would Sam stand-up in the back of Patrick’s truck and fling-open her arms as he drives down that tunnel from the first-shot? Oh, right. To feel alive. Right.
In this world, there are no people of colour. No poor kids. No gang culture to further inhibit and corrupt young minds. This is a suburban experience that is purely American. Aside from the odd hash-brownie and tab of LSD (probably nicked from the stash begun by their parents in the Seventies), about the riskiest thing they do, is run their own ‘Secret Santa’ at Christmas (Charlie’s big present? No, silly. It’s a suit, with matching drainpipe tie… WTF? I’d have been lucky with a pair of bloody socks…).
Which normal teenager has the money to blow on a suit for someone in a Secret Santa group? Come ON! This only goes to reinforce the idea that we’re in the land of the unreal, here. This is Hollywood-land. It might’ve been written by an earnest Stephen Chbosky, but I don’t believe any of this rubbish, even IF it turned out things like this actually happened to him. Instead, I think this was the kind of group that he wished to have belonged to, so when it came to writing his book, it was the kind of detail he threw-in out of sorrow for the reality. And if it was true? Then I have indeed led a sheltered life. Still don’t believe it, though.
Maybe I’m just jealous that my schooldays better resemble the Diary of Adrian Mole than this tosh. Or maybe I’m jealous that I went through my entire teen-hood without a single tab of LSD passing my lips [SIGH].
For those that can relate to all this, I’m sure it’s relevant and speaks to them still, almost twenty years since the book was published. Many of its original wave of readers must be parents themselves by now and the memories of this book might still burn strong for them. It’s their heritage and experience, after all. But not mine. All I can do is view this as a standalone film, devoid of its baggage and on those terms, it’s doing precious little that’s new. Chbosky directs with a plodding touch that’s credible for a first-time Director; it’s telling that, having gotten this one away, he then stuck to writing over directing (the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast being his last IMDB credit). So he’s not the ‘new John Hughes’? Seems not, but then again, who is?
And what of Emma Watson? This came hot on the heels of the last Potter movie and would mark her transition as an actor; she chose well: a small, low-budget indie that few would see (apart from fans of either her, the book or both), it wouldn’t stand or fall on her presence alone; to her credit, she’s still the second-best actor here.
We accept the love we think we deserve.
Triple Word / Score: Noodling / Tippy-Toe’d / Familiar / Five