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An Open Letter to Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

October 8, 2012

By John C.

Written as a series of deeply personal letters to an anonymous friend, Stephen Chbosky’s controversial and critically acclaimed coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book that means a lot to me.  It has gained a dedicated following since it was first published in 1999, and is a masterpiece that has the power to define a generation and change your outlook on life.  The author has finally realized his dream of bringing his book to the big screen and he has delivered one of the best movies of the year.

Missing the premiere was among my biggest disappointments of the Toronto International Film Festival, but I finally saw the movie when it opened in limited release last week.  With a deeply moving story that is brought to life through wonderful performances and an excellent soundtrack, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the best movies about teenagers since John Hughes was in his prime.  It deserves to become a modern classic.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a wallflower, on the outside always looking in.  He is still mourning the death of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) ten years earlier and after his only friend committed suicide last May, Charlie is left to start his freshman year of high school completely on his own.  But then he meets the exuberant Patrick (Ezra Miller) and the beautiful Sam (Emma Watson), two high school seniors who bring him into their world of relationships, drug-fuelled house parties and late night showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Charlie comes to the honest conclusion that they are boyfriend and girlfriend, but Patrick is gay and Sam is his stepsister.

Although Charlie has a crush on Sam, his romantic feelings towards her are seemingly only reciprocated by her assertive friend, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman).  Feelings are shared between friends through mix tapes and their love of the song “Asleep” by The Smiths, but friendships have the ability to constantly change.  Everyone that Charlie knows, including his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) are already thinking about going away for college, leaving him to feel alone all over again.  My life is officially an after school special,” Patrick laments at one point.  But this movie thankfully never is.

When you read the book, the characters become real, and Stephen Chbosky has assembled a cast that is just perfect for every single role.  Logan Lerman brings Charlie to life in such a heartbreakingly real way, delivering one of the most emotionally complex performances of the year.  He is always on the sidelines observing the situation, but his friends start to give him the confidence to actually join in.  The quiet scenes between him and Emma Watson are just beautifully done and filmed in a very tender and moving way.  Ezra Miller delivers a touching performance as a teenager struggling to find a way to express himself and be accepted, while also providing moments of comic relief.

There have been several films this year that have stuck with me in a deeply personal way, including Silver Linings Playbook and The Sessions along with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  All three films also share something in common.  They are about outsiders who are searching for a human connection, but have been emotionally held back by things both physical and psychological beyond their control.  There is a tragic twist at the end of The Perks of Being a Wallflower that packs a shocking emotional punch in the book, and everything is depicted on screen in such an emotionally real way that I found it impossible to watch the film without being deeply moved throughout.

There are so many unforgettable scenes in the film, including a high school dance that is as memorable for the audience as it is the characters.  Charlie stands alone against the wall, watching Sam and Patrick let loose and dominate the dance floor.  The 1982 hit “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners is playing, and as the song slows down, he tentatively walks towards them in time to the music.  When the song picks up speed once again, they pull him into their group and he is no longer just an observer to the situation.  As his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) is always encouraging him to do, Charlie is “participating.”  The scene not only provides a visually powerful symbolism of the story, but also perfectly encapsulates a time and place that is at once personal and completely universal.

I thankfully haven’t gone through everything that Charlie goes through, and those who know the story will understand why I say that hopefully nobody has to experience some of the things that happen to him.  But I can relate to the character and there are so many moments in both the book and film that are sure to resonate no matter what your life experiences.  “I feel infinite,” Charlie says as they drive through the Pittsburgh tunnel with David Bowie’s “Heroes” blaring on the stereo, watching Sam stand up in the back of their pickup truck with her arms extended at her side.  It’s an iconic moment in the book and watching it play out on screen is like reading it for the first time all over again.

Both as a book and movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower succeeds at capturing that moment where we all start to come into our lives and desperately try to find experiences that make us feel infinite.  It shows us a time filled with confusion, sexual awakening and those fleeting moments of clarity that come from listening to that perfect song on the perfect night.  It depicts a time in our lives when we don’t have to think about what happens tomorrow, because we always have tonight.  And those are the moments when we truly feel infinite.  Based on one of my favourite books of all time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is among the best movies of the year.

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