The experience of high school can so often feel interminable. It is even worse if you are an awkward outcast, relegated to eating your lunch alone, finding your only friend in a kindly English teacher, grateful to him for providing you with extra reading assignments. But you can’t just stand around and hope to be camouflaged by the wall for four years – nope, you have to hope against hope and try and try to land yourself placement in a clique. Because the clique is the only means of defense any of us have against the infinite beyond of high school.
The reason, I suspect, so many high school films follow a similar formula is on account of the clique’s overriding importance. Cliques are no different than movie genres, really. Sure, there all sorts of sub genres but your basic genres, your action/adventure, your romance, your comedy, your drama, don’t change. The broad outline remains the same and it is the little things within that outline that vary. The same is true of The Perks of Being A Wallflower, based on the acclaimed novel by Stephen Chbosky who both adapted the screenplay and sat in the director’s chair. The broad outline is familiar. It’s the little things tucked away inside that vary. And it’s the little things, keen observations and wry humor, at which this film excels.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the wallflower of the title, an incoming freshman typing letters to an imaginary friend for an outlet, still stung by the death of his aunt (Melanie Lynskey). In voiceover he references mental troubles in the past which leaves their potential to resurface hovering over the whole film. Eventually, thankfully, he is welcomed into a clique, “the island of misfit toys,” a group of seniors, outcasts in their own right, who have banded together.
Patrick, deftly played by Ezra Miller, is flamboyantly gay but not stereotypically gay, proudly “below average” (in a manner of speaking), owning his identity in a place and culture not in tune to it. Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), the Buddhist Punk, rocking the side mullet years before Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld, is Charlie’s first girlfriend but, of course, not his first true love. No, that would be Sam (Emma Watson), besot by her own troubled past, always dating The Wrong Guy on account of wrenching insecurity, the Smiths-adoring siren who helps Charlie grow into himself as he reciprocates in kind.
Together these wallflowers will stand as one, and it reminded me of what my best friend once said regarding our own high school clique – that we relied on EACH OTHER to get through. True that. But then the shield that surrounds this clique is not impenetrable. Sadness will seep its way in. And darkness. These are people destined to ward off trouble only to find more trouble elsewhere.
And with their differences in “class”, Charlie is destined from the get-go to be abandoned by his new-found allies at the end of the year. This triggers a bit of inevitable tragedy that feels too perfunctory, too neat and clean for being something so upsetting and messy. This is forgivable, precisely because the movie, despite centered around characters scarred by the past, is not about that past. They don’t deny that past, rather they are learning to deal with the present and cautiously daring to imagine the future.
Twice the film finds Charlie, Sam and Patrick cruising in a dirty old pickup through the Fort Pitt Tunnel that opens up to the glittering skyline of downtown Pittsburgh. Twice characters climb into the bed of that pickup, stand up and open their arms to, in their verbiage, touch the infinite. Forgive me, dear readers, but it evoked my long-ago waning high school youth and a moment of my own in the bed of a pickup truck with a girl I really dug beneath the stars as it roared its way down University Avenue. I remember feeling as if that moment was infinite. It wasn’t obviously. But, of course, it also very much was.