At a wedding last month, I debated with the stunning brunette next to me about the song that was playing. To convince her it was Rod Stewart, I took action and pulled out my phone. Four seconds later, Shazam® told us that I was right. “That’s All.” Unfortunately for Charlie, the protagonist of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, life in 1991 Pittsburg didn’t offer such luxuries.
Based on Chbosky’s own 1999 novel, Perks is the story of Charlie, his island of misfit friends, and his first year of high school. Many of the expected clichés, including first loves and drugs (both prescribed and recreational) are on display here, but Perks‘ strength comes from its surprising display of subtlety. This is a world where trying weed or LSD doesn’t turn you into an addict. Where it’s 1991, but you don’t constantly hear Marky Mark or C+C Music Factory.
In the film’s most memorable scene, Charlie (Logan Lerman) watches as Emma Watson’s Sam stands in the bed of her pickup truck, arms wide, flying toward the Steel City skyline. A mystery song plays on the blaring radio and he falls in love. I could have told him it was Bowie’s “Heroes,” but to be fair, at his age, Jakob Dylan was the reason I knew that.
Chbosky took the adaptation as an opportunity to smooth out some of the more maudlin parts of the story. In the book, Charlie is too naïve. His explanations of “special brownies” and masturbation come off as perplexingly sincere. By simply excising these passages, Charlie becomes more well-rounded. Another point of subtlety, on the part of both Chbosky and actor Ezra Miller, is Sam’s gay step-brother Patrick. He’s not closeted, nor is he waving a rainbow flag for 103 minutes. He’s just a guy that likes football and The Smiths. And dudes.
Fans of the novel will have little to complain about. The broadstrokes are all here, along with enough details to keep you grinning. Morrissey fans rejoice, you’ll hear about “Asleep” at least three times. It’s also funny as hell. Like a truth-or-dare confession that is delivered with such a lack of emotion that everyone but the audience thinks it’s a joke. Or when Patrick takes Charlie on a tour of the local cruising spot, lovingly referred to as “The Fruit Loop.”
Through his freshman year, Charlie deals with depression over the recent death of a friend and the years-ago death of his favorite aunt. By reserving himself to the sidelines, Charlie gains a certain perspective on adolescent life. As a wallflower, he sees things, keeps quiet about them, and understands. But of course, he doesn’t act. He takes drugs because he didn’t understand what kind of brownies they were. His music taste comes from Ponytail Derek, his sister’s boyfriend. His books come from his English teacher, an underused Paul Rudd. He waits for the girl to kiss him.
Understandably, Charlie’s feelings for Sam are under-requited. She’s fond him of, sure, but she’s not the kind to wait around. Kissing the girl is like trying to identify a mystery song. In our youth, we sang whatever lyrics we could remember to friends and record store clerks, perhaps brought a guitar to recreate a stray melody. Today, we can find out what we’re listening to instantly. We used to wear an uneasy smile and avoid eye contact with a date, as Charlie does in the film. Now, we look in her eyes and lean in until our mouths meet.
When you’re older, all this stuff is easier, but it’s not just the passing of time that does that. All of our modern conveniences are the result of great minds and tireless labor. It’s not age that builds up our experience and our confidence. It’s taking a chance, whether you get the girl or you get shot down. Over the course of ten months, Charlie finds a place to fit in, confronts his depression, discovers Bowie and finally kisses the girl.
Sometimes you need to realize that the only thing pushing your back against the wall is your own weight. It doesn’t just take time to identify a song or kiss the girl. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes action.