Writer-director Stephen Chbosky wisely opens his coming-of-age dramedy with “Could It Be Another Change,” a pensive Samples track that sets the tone for the entire film.
The pinpoint-accurate song selections, the painfully honest dialogue, the beating heart breaking through the screen – for so many reasons, Chbosky might be the next John Hughes. At the same time, he might never make another movie. All I can say with any certainty is that Chbosky’s Perks is the first film in far too long to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful – screenplay bibles for emotionally adrift teenagers. Wallflower fits right in with that pack of outcast films.
Because Perks embraces so many pertinent teen issues, it’s an important film that we absolutely look forward to discussing in the When Can I Watch column. The film has been rolling out slowly after a few film-festival stops. At last count, Summit had it in just over 220 theaters, with more to come. Hopefully by now, it’s playing at a theater near you.
So, let’s put David Bowie on the perfect mix tape and figure out when you can watch The Perks of Being a Wallflower with your kids.
Green Lights: “We can be heroes. Just for one day.”
Chbosky first wrote Wallflower as a novel back in 1999. His wallflower, Charlie, represents the author’s own feelings of estrangement and isolation… to a certain extent. The filmmaker, adapting his own screenplay, has said that Charlie reflects some of Chbosky’s own experiences, but not all. So it’s very important to point out how Logan Lerman, playing Charlie on-screen, infuses him with an every-loner quality that so many of us will be able to relate to.
The movie covers Charlie’s freshman year at a new high school, and his trepidation – at the onset – is evident. In an opening monologue, Charlie prays his older sister will help him through this painfully rough transition as he counts down the numbers of days he has until the last day of school. (The figure tops 1,000… not a good sign.) To jump back to a Hughes script, Charlie is Ally Sheedy before she landed in Breakfast Club detention: Shy, quiet, distrustful and protecting a dangerous secret.
Charlie, of course, isn’t alone for long. Wallflower does a number of things very well. Capturing the importance of “friendship” has to be the film’s number one strength. Even better, Perks nails how friends often act as life rafts for loners who don’t even realize we are drowning in the choppy seas of awkward social situations. “Welcome to the land of misfit toys,” the alluring Sam (Emma Watson) tells Charlie, and the film starts to glow with the warmth of acceptance and trust.
If this were a proper review, I’d go on and on about Watson and Ezra Miller’s outstanding performances as Charlie’s kindhearted guardian angels, Sam and Patrick. They’re fantastic, the kind of performances that would define these young talents… if they hadn’t already shattered the mold in the Harry Potter franchise and We Need to Talk About Kevin, respectively.
Lerman’s a find, as well. I know I saw him in Percy Jackson, but I didn’t really notice him until Wallflower, where he is asked to dance through a complicated range of adolescent emotions. Lerman almost landed the role of Peter Parker in Marc Webb’s Spider-Man reboot. He would have nailed it.
Speaking of, Chbosky nails a number of key high school-age transitions that are tough to capture with honesty on-screen. Some are commonplace, as when Paul Rudd portrays one of those instructors who find themselves as they work to help their students. Others are unique to a time period, as when Patrick takes over the local arthouse’s screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It’s staggering the number of obstacles Chbosky tackles. Depression, rejection, first kisses, first touches, homosexuality, abusive parents… and nothing feels shortchanged. In fact, the movie’s message boils down to the Bowie lyric in the Green Lights subhead. Sam, Patrick and Charlie rely on each other. They wave a flag that says we’re not alone in this feeling this way, in dealing with this. And as long as you have the support of a close friend, they realize they can be a heroes… just for one day.
Red Flags: “I didn’t think anyone noticed me.”
By playing directly to high school-aged audience members, Chbosky assumes he’s free to delve into some difficult material with Perks, and that bears pointing out to parents.
Charlie, for example, suffers from near-crippling post-traumatic stress thanks to a form of abuse in his past that’s hinted at for the bulk of the film and finally revealed in the end. (Oh, Melanie Lynskey. How could you?) Perks doesn’t bludgeon us with the tragedy of the occurrence. This isn’t a Lifetime movie. But the subject of sexual abuse is broached, and Charlie has to come to terms with some ugly emotions.
The majority of Perks, however, will only be uncomfortable because we recognize everything that’s happening on-screen. Chbosky and his cast give the whole film a lived-in appreciation, and we’ll see ourselves – or our close friends – in almost all of the characters plastered on-screen.
For parents, the language is teenage appropriate. Charlie is slipped a pot brownie. Blow job jokes are more common than curse words. Perks doesn’t treat its audience members like children, so parents shouldn’t let their children go. Not until they’re likely experiencing the same issues Charlie, Sam and Patrick are facing.
With that in mind…
Perks should be shown to all Wallflowers heading into eighth or ninth grade and up. It should be treated as mandatory viewing material as the aforementioned Hughes movies. It will make an excellent companion piece to Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful. It will become one of those movies this generation turns to when it wants to say, “This is how it was for us, and this is how we survived it.” For teenagers – and those of us who were teenagers once – it’s truly remarkable.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.