“Perks of Being a Wallflower”: Charming, Endearing, and Every Other Wholesome Word that I Know

A quiet, awkward teenager is the last student in the classroom.  His favorite teacher is seated behind his desk.  The man smiles and says a quick goodbye as the boy walks past.  The boy stops, hesitating near the door with his mouth half open.  It takes a bit of courage for him, but he manages to speak up.

“Mr. Anderson?  Can I ask you a question?” he says quietly.

“Sure, Charlie.”

“Why do people always wind up loving people that are bad for them?”

The teacher looks away for a moment, still seated.  There’s a pause, but he manages to speak with almost no hesitation whatsoever.

“We accept the love that we think we deserve.”

The boy nods solemnly and turns to go.  But then he turns back again.

“Can we make them realize that they deserve better?”

Again, with a meaningful pause but no hesitation, he speaks:

“We can try.”  

And with an encouraging smile that might rival Gatsby’s, Mr. Anderson says goodbye again.

Just look at that face.  Is it possible to dislike Paul Rudd?  How can somebody manage to perform outstandingly well both in hysterically raunchy movies and serious heartfelt films?  He’s just so dang likable wherever he pops up, and while he was one of the minor parts of Perks of Being a Wallflower, he snuck in as one of its strongest features.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here out of shear enthusiasm for Perks of Being a Wallflower, which you might know is based on a book by Stephen Chbosky of the same title.  Our protagonist is Charlie, a freshman-year wallflower who struggles to find the perks (yes, I went there) of a stressed, contemplative existence that for a long time is very lonely.  Much of the plot is spent with Charlie dealing with some serious emotional trauma while finally experiencing the joy of new friendship and love from the people that he meets.  The two most important people are Sam and Patrick, step-siblings that Charlie falls in line with.  They take him under their wing and Sam even becomes Charlie’s love interest.

At a certain point in the movie, Charlie fills the seemingly trite shoes of the young, awkward boy in love.  Sam is a senior and dating a guy in college, who Charlie despises on principle, even though he wouldn’t need a reason to hate the guy, who is easily describable as some kind of pompous pedant.  It’s at this point when Charlie approaches his favorite teacher for some wisdom in the scene I transcribed above.  Like just about everything in this story, this scene could have been executed in an extremely cliche and boring way; it’s got the typical high-schooly problems and accompanying advice from a wise mentor.  Typical Cory Matthews and Mr. Feeny stuff when you look at it superficially.  It’s for that reason that I almost expected the movie to “try too hard” and “not be believable” by seeming like some lost relic from the ’90s.  

But there’s something special that Perks of Being a Wallflower has, and it’s not just the emotionally heavy backstory that is slowly and cleverly revealed, or even the fluctuating madness that Charlie has to grapple with.  Those factors add emotional gravity to what might otherwise be a simple story.  The most important ingredient in Perks is simple:

It’s earnest.

Perks of Being a Wallflower winds up being so damned earnest that it might rekindle any waning romantic hearts out there.  Heck, it might even inspire you to tears.  Charlie isn’t just your average, awkward teenster.  He has some serious issues, and he’s an interesting, poetic, downright funny kid who is too messed up to like himself for who he is.  He’s confused, like all of us, and rather than sit around feeling sorry for himself for no good reason, he rails against profound questions in his life.  Why is there so much suffering out there?  Why do people hurt themselves willingly by pursuing what isn’t good for them?  It has everything to do with this vicious cycle of self-loathing.  We accept the love that we think we deserve, which is to say that we don’t think very much of ourselves.  It sucks, doesn’t it?  How can we make it better?

Let me tell you how: every now and then, we meet people that drag us out of the protective shells that we’ve built around ourselves.  Barriers are broken down and we are able to feel joy in its purest form, because being with people that you connect with on such a deep level makes you feel alive.  Who cares about feeling foolish or ridiculous?  That’s half the fun!  Spontaneity has a place in the heart of joy, when you stop thinking and start acting just enough to lose yourself in the moment.  When you lose yourself to that moment, you might be fortunate enough to get one of those feelings where you are exactly where you are meant to be, like destiny has set you up alongside the infinite universe.

There’s another really great scene in Perks, which is probably the most quoted scene from both book and movie.  Patrick and Sam show Charlie their special routine where they drive through a tunnel with one of them standing in the back of a pick-up truck listening to special songs.  It reminds you of those times when you were too young to understand what it meant to feel sad and happy at the same time, how you can feel ecstatic about the reality of life while being forced to wallow in the pain that comes with it.  ”In that moment, we felt infinite,” Charlie says.  It’s one of those incommunicable feelings that you can’t ever really describe what it means to anyone else, but maybe, if we’re lucky, we can still somehow understand what they mean by feeling that overwhelming sense of wonder ourselves.

This is a really hard review to write.  Maybe I’m out of practice, or maybe Perks of Being a Wallflower is just that good?  It makes you feel like a kid again, looking back on all of the problems and joys that once meant everything but seem so juvenile now.  Remember that one dance in high school where you just went crazy and had the time of your life?  Remember that one night when you were with the right people and even though you did basically nothing, it felt like it meant everything?  Remember the people who inspired you to become who you are today, to fully realize yourself as your are today?  That’s what it’s like watching Perks.  You’re made into a kid again so you can retrace the path that brought you to today.

Oh the nostalgia.  Maybe that’s what Charlie means when he says he feels both sad and happy at the same time but doesn’t understand how that can be possible?