One of the most poignant aspects of almost every person’s high school experiences is that what we do during that time in our lives - during such pinnacle development - is ultimately never going to fall back on us in our adult lives. I feel confident in saying that, even though there is a myriad of pathways leading to different directions in our adulthood, a slightly black-and-white theory that a person either remains stuck in their adolescent state or actually gains the backbone to live out aspirations or fit in with the system are the two defining directions. For the latter group, of which pretty much represent the characters that Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower most delicately stands by, it is when that flat cap is thrown way up in the air that it dawns on them that the past four years have been nothing but a period of time that has helped shape them into the aspiration-driven individuals they have ultimately become. In their newly structured lives, with more personal devotion and time dedicated to themselves and pathologies they throw toward a career, what happened in high school (as dramatic as it may have seemed back in occurrence) has little to no substantial meaning anymore. As an example within this film, it may be possible that the character of Sam (played by an incredibly nuanced Emma Watson) partied all night and slept her way through an entire football team on a weekly basis, but the ultimate viewpoint to take from this remains that those moments don’t define who she is to be; they have only helped lead her into choosing where her future will take her. This seems to be director Chbosky’s point with his story.
Having read Chbosky’s original novel of the same name, it’s quite astonishing how they pretty much feel like the same story featuring the same articulate attention to their protagonist, Charlie (played in the film by an alarmingly emotional Logan Lerman), and yet variably feel like they have two different ideas for their resolving theme. Both novel and film analyze how the freshman Charlie becomes friends with a group of seniors; showcasing the events they share together over a period of a full high school year - doing so in the typical episodic fashion that almost all post-John Hughes high school movies do. Most importantly, though, both are very aware that it would be wrong to place judgment on the secret history between Charlie and his beloved aunt who had sexually molested him as a child. This pivotal piece of information not only helps us understand Charlie’s easily destructive mental capacity and shade why he ultimately falls for the Sam character, but also sits so acutely alongside Chbosky’s stance on the high school experience overall. The decision for him to omit subplots from his novel involving an abortion and other unrelated past sexual incidents practically distort this and come off like a heavy-handed attempt to seek oversentimentality. The film never screams for this sentimentality, refreshingingly - even when the entire film dedicates itself to having such a serious tone. This makes most sense because Charlie, as our narrator, obviously doesn’t seek for it at all.
But what’s most ironic about Charlie is that the reason why he has attracted the group of friends he has is because they have instinctually taken it upon themselves to feel pity for him. When Charlie first sits with Sam and her stepbrother Patrick (the wonderfully delightful Ezra Miller) at the football game, they both greet him with kindness and let him tag along with them. It’s an acquaintanceship that is never mean-spirited but never really something that features an emotional resonance, either. When Charlie gains enough bravery within himself to join both siblings in parading around during Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” at a school dance, he finds himself falling into an after-party in which the teenagers enjoy sharing their more, as many online forums like to say, ‘pretentious’ hipster traits.
Amongst these characters includes Mae Whitman’s Mary Elizabeth and Reece Thompson’s Craig, both of whom Chbosky never uses subtlety to call attention to their poseur-lite personalities. Refreshingly, though, this isn’t thought of entirely negative on Chbosky’s part - making sure to draw emphasis to these aspects of Sam who, quite viciously, rips apart her previous taste in “horrible top 40" music as if it’s something to be ashamed of (another thematic tie-in with the “not defined by / shaped by the past” theme.) During this party, a fellow partygoer finds humor in slipping a hash-stuffed brownie to the clueless Charlie, resulting in almost everyone there getting serious belly-laughs out of his innocent reaction to the substance. After this, Sam takes Charlie to the kitchen for a milkshake and is shot directly into the heart with the unexpected (and quite emotionlessly delivered) revelation from Charlie that his best friend had just recently killed himself. Through Watson’s exceptional performance (her eyes illuminating her shock) we comprehend Sam’s reaction completely. Haunted by this to such a degree, she tells Patrick, and they both invest enough commitment into Charlie’s tragedy that they make a toast to him as if to make him feel special. “Everybody raise your glasses to Charlie,” Patrick pleads. “You didn’t do anything. We just want to toast to our new friend. You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.”
Which layers this relationship between the trio with even more irony. They’ve knighted Charlie into being apart of their posse, but even though responses of mercy have triggered them to do so, they are still quite genuine in their response. They want to be his friend, but Patrick bluntly admits it within that toast that Charlie hasn’t done absolutely anything... except break their hearts with a piece of history they never expected to hear. As the film plays along and we tag along with events through their school year, one notices the tendency for both Patrick and Sam (and even others) to constantly seek advice from their much younger counterpart. Questions about existentialism and about the fear of failure - even about relationships - that Charlie hasn’t got the slightest bit of experience in. It almost becomes a quiet joke within the movie when one focuses on the amount of times Charlie responds with deer-in-headlight eyes and a nervous “I don’t know” upon them seeking advice. (Quite depressingly, just to make point of it, if one pays attention - they realize that at almost every party he attends, Charlie is almost always stoned out of his mind and alone somewhere amongst the teary-eyed, smiling older kids.) Strikingly, the one time Charlie actually finds the right answer is when he responds to Sam’s questioning about why people she loves choose to be around those who make them feel like shit. “We accept the love we feel we deserve,” he tells her. A group of words very meaningful and very much true - and they really help Sam in that moment of need - but the only advice Charlie knew how to give was a piece of wisdom he had received from his English teacher. Someone older and more experienced.
Friendships can be very complicated and can be constructed on grounds both large and minuscule, emotional or physical. It comes to show the true compassion of Patrick and Sam that they have put so much into being there for Charlie - almost becoming paternal figures when they aren’t stuck lost in their confusions and seeking for Charlie to diagnose their problems. Even when being in a odd relationship with the overbearing and obnoxious Mary Elizabeth, when asked to kiss the prettiest girl in the room during a game of ‘Truth or Dare’, Charlie makes the heartfelt and honest decision to spontaneously lock his lips with Sam’s. Instead of processing what may have been going through Charlie’s mind, the entire group seems to turn on him almost instantly - cutting off all ties with him by ignoring his phone calls and even small attempts at both casual conversation and sincere apology. During a physically brutal fight in the cafeteria between Patrick and a group of jocks (in which Patrick’s character is shaded with his dimensions), Charlie’s lack of control with his emotions take over and, upon blacking out, viciously attacks the attackers and saves his friend. Following this incident, he asks Sam if they can be friends again. “Of course,” she says, giving him a warm hug; both parties seemingly oblivious to the selfish nature in what Charlie had to do in order to be accepted back into their world.
Where I feel Chbosky helps elevate The Perks of Being a Wallflower even further beyond another high school movie affair concerning friends at a pinnacle stage in their life is in his handling of Charlie’s history with his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey; as haunting as ever). The development that she sexually abused him when he was a kid is something held away from the audience for good reason, but never reads as exploitive or manipulative when finally revealed. This has much to do with helping us connect with Charlie’s affection for Sam - a kind of movie convention that we are accustomed to reading as the “fragile-lead-boy-falling-for-the-pretty-lead-girl syndrome". Upon realizing this important layer in Charlie’s framework, the retrospective in looking at his falling for Sam becomes something entirely new. As a Christmas present to Sam, Charlie gives his deceased aunt’s vinyl of “Something” by The Beatles to her - additionally telling Sam in one of the film’s most essential scenes that his aunt was “[his] favorite person in the world, until [he met her]”. Strikingly, the first scene in which we are introduced to Sam at the football game, Chbosky frames actress Emma Watson with extreme emphasis on her brown eyes. In one of Charlie’s flashbacks involving his Aunt Helen, the director makes sure to handle Melanie Lynskey’s brown eyes with the same amount of attention. During the aforementioned milkshake sequence, it makes most sense why Charlie actually draws attention to mentioning the eyes - as these are crucial into where he gains the physical reaction toward Sam.
Wording this all makes these elements of the film come off as unsettling. In a way, they naturally are. Any sane human being should be uncomfortable with Charlie’s deep-seated love and spiritual bond with his aunt. But Chbosky’s freedom of judgment is very refreshing - and quite brave in its depiction of how the sexually abused view their predators. Most scenarios like these, especially in mainstream American cinema, are almost always put into the light of repulsion if not completely ignored overall. Chbosky realizes that Charlie really loved this woman - put his heart and soul into her and, as a fragile child, wasn’t competent enough on his abuse to draw detest toward that person he adored so much. And he’s still developing the sense of forgiving and accepting this moment in his life as effective on his present personality. His aunt helped shape a part of him with the trauma she had inflicted, but he needs to realize that this history doesn’t necessarily define who he has yet to become.
The final scenes, where Sam leaves for college and Charlie’s anxiety goes haywire, is meticulously created to demonstrate both technically (via the film editing and cinematography) and characteristically (remembering the faces of his friends in the cafeteria brawl, Charlie can’t help but fear his friends were terrified of what he had done) where Charlie’s mind has fallen. It’s a striking moment in which, throughout all of his tribulation, he must ultimately find an exit out of it. Thankfully, even upon finally admitting that what his Aunt Helen did was wrong, he still hasn’t cured himself of his instability. Chbosky making sure to point that out is crucial to the film’s respect in handling the illness - and once again another reminder to the theme.
It’s been pointed out as a huge flaw in the film that this group of characters so invested into the more underground and unconventional music choices of their time period wouldn’t know that the song they heard in the truck was David Bowie’s “Heroes”. I feel like their lack of realization to this, while probably a production quip concerning the song choice, is a nice little touch to the overall theme Chbosky was going for. Throughout the film, all three characters are constantly searching for comfort and encouragement in facing the unknown futures ahead of them - some even seeking it from people who don’t even possess the knowledge ready for them. But what they didn’t realize the whole time was that it was already there; that they were, as Charlie points out, infinite. Finally finding the title of that well-known track just seems to fit right at home within this subtext - intentional or not - that they have so many new possibilities ahead of them.