Oh, if only my painful and agonizing years in high school were as painful and agonizing as Charlie’s, the hero of the new coming of age film The Perks of Being a Wildflower. There’s something so beautiful and rhapsodic about Charlie’s freshman year that serves as the plot of this movie, that one not just envies him, one feels robbed of a true right of passage to pre-adulthood. Why does he get to have all these horrible things happen to him? Why is he so blessed? What’s wrong with me?
The movie is pure nostalgia with all the depressing sweetness that description implies. This also means it’s not a realistic depiction of what happened, but a heightened romantic view of that period of time (it has moments with the same feeling as the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—a look at college life so hauntingly beautiful that it’s too excruciating to experience a second time). And the writer/director Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on) does something well nigh impossible—he’s made a coming of age film that is not only worth seeing, but actually gives coming of age films a good name.
Charlie (played by the waiflike Logan Lerman, who is heartbreaking from the moment he appears on screen) is a wallflower, but for good reason. It’s not long before it’s revealed that something awful has recently happened to him that is preventing him from connecting with people (what that is, is soon revealed, but in such a casual and off the cuff way that it socks you in the gut). It’s not much longer before you realize that there’s something even deeper than that going on. Everyone hints at it (they mention him seeing things, black outs, he has mysterious flashbacks to an aunt he deeply loves, etc.), but it’s not until the end of the movie that the whole story comes together.
But Charlie’s determined not to let his past become his future, so he goes to a football game (an experience he obviously has no essential interest in; he just as obviously has no idea what is going on on field), and there he takes a chance and talks to another misfit like himself, Patrick (the excellent Ezra Miller, who played the sociopathic son in We Need to Talk About Kevin), and through Patrick, Charlie meets Sam (the spot on and refreshing Emma Watson, doing perhaps an even more successful job of making one forget that she was in the Harry Potter films than Daniel Radcliffe did in The Woman in Black)—the next thing you know, Charlie’s going to parties; eating pot brownies and taking LSD; and attending midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yes, Virginia, the story takes place in the 1980’s). And he slowly sees the end of the tunnel approaching until…well, see the movie and find out.
Charlie is what in screenplay parlance is called a reactive character, a character that doesn’t have a clear and strong goal (other than trying to survive or get though a difficult situation), but whose story is told in his reactions to everything going on around him. If you read any books on screenwriting, they almost invariably state that such a character is anathema to the essence of successful story telling. This, of course, as movies like …Wallflower show, is “malarkey”, to quote a recent Vice Presidential debate (a “whopper” to quote a Presidential one).
But it’s pertinent in many ways to the theme of the movie here. At one point, Patrick points out the “perks” of Charlie’s reactivity—he is the only one who can interpret everything going on around him because he is not actively involved; he is the one who is the stand in for the audience, who tips us off as to what the real meaning of the events he and everyone experiences are; he is the one who can see things no one else can because he is the Observer (complete with that capital O). It’s his reactivity that drives the story and gives him the ability to have insight where no one else does. It gives him his place in the world. Characters like Charlie are just as indispensable to art as active characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond. They may even be more indispensable—characters like Jones and Bond tells us almost nothing about life except that it isn’t remotely like it is in the movies; characters like Charlie do almost nothing but tell us about life.
The movie is not perfect. There is so much tragedy at times that it almost threatens to bring to mind Birdie Coonan’s line in All Above Eve: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at her rear end”. Chbosky’s dialog is witty and strong, but at times he lacks a deft hand at directing actors so that some lines roll a bit clunkily off the tongue. And some of the adult characters feel wasted (especially Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s father who feels cast below his pay grade). But I also feel like I’m kind of carping here.
…Wallflower may be full of tragedy, but Chblosky is essentially an optimist. He does not take the nihilist view of Gregg Araki and Larry Clark that describe American youth as a generation of sociopaths and lost souls on the eve of self-destruction. For him, the kids are not exactly all right, but they are not lost. They have a future and the inner strength to go for it, but it’s not an easy road.
The movie’s also pretty swell.