The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) by Stephen Chbosky
Personal Essay by John McAmis
“Why do nice people choose the wrong people to date?”
“Well, we accept the love we think we deserve.”
“Can we make them know they deserve more?”
“We can try.”
I love this movie. This piece of cinema has latched itself onto my psyche and refuses to ever loosen its grip. It should also be noted: I hated high school, and this movie came out when I was a senior. My experience in that angst-ridden prison was similar to Charlie’s (Logan Lerman), one where your friends are older than you because the kids you’ve grown up with all your life know you too well to be friends, and if your classmates haven’t befriended you before high school, they definitely won’t do it now. My high school crush was in a different circle than mine, and crossing into that territory took strategy and planning and courage and a fearlessness that I did not, nor will ever, possess. I played tuba in the marching band and studied in the honors program, natural habitats for an introvert. My older brother was in high school with me for two years, something Charlie does not experience, but I knew my brother’s friends, and there was an expectation of friendliness between us, regardless of the age difference. Charlie has that set-up, too, with Brad (Johnny Simmons) who knew Charlie’s brother. And while my high school parallels Charlie’s, it’s really my experience of college that aligns with Perks’s themes and narrative.
During my freshman year of college, I knew a handful of people on campus, people from my high school who had graduated with me or a year or two earlier. I was determined to make new friends, though. I’d had enough of my hometown people, and the ideals they had brought with them to college. I made several harsh decisions that year. I left the Church. I actively refused invitations from hometown friends. I didn’t go on any dates, to any parties, or to any major sporting events. I changed my major at least three times. I abandoned everything I knew in the hopes of finding something fresh and appropriate for my interests. In doing this, I unknowingly brought loneliness upon myself. My friend group fizzled down to two, maybe three people that I rarely saw. I ate by myself most days and studied alone at the coffee shop on campus. My first year of college was Charlie’s first day of high school.
I did, however, find one thing within my first week on campus. There was a small group of people that met on Monday nights in the Art and Architecture building, watching and talking about movies. It’d been my dream for years to one day work in the animation industry, so I joined Cinema Club immediately. I went to every screening, though my introverted mouth didn’t say anything in discussion until the spring semester. This club was to me what Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller respectively, were to Charlie. The people were smart and funny and exciting. I slowly worked my way into the cinema circle, making some incredible friends and exposing myself to the best films in the world. Sam and Patrick do this for Charlie, taking him under their wing and teaching him the ways of the world through music. Now, as I write these words, I’m the Vice President of Cinema Club and will be a groomsmen for the couple who first invited me to pizza one night after a screening, things that I never expected to happen, but am immensely grateful that they did.
Now, Charlie is much more conflicted than I. He’s got a personal history of depression and familial issues that I can only tangentially relate to, but we are very similar people. Charlie is a writer, but he utilizes his talents in a therapeutic manner. Writing as therapy is a cornerstone of my self-care practice, and it’s even a major theme in my upcoming animated short. These words, right here, that you’re reading, are part of my coping with personal events that occurred over the summer and this past semester that have left me in a state of depression and confusion and cynicism. Charlie takes solace in his pen and paper, and later typewriter, with which he can release thoughts and feelings to his friend. And though it’s not so clear in the movie, in the book it’s understood that Charlie’s “friend” is actually us, the reader. Charlie’s loneliness transcends his world and calls upon us to absorb his thoughts and tuck them away. I’ve also done the writing-a-letter-and-never-sending-it thing, but writing fiction and film reviews proves to be a more constructive outlet for me.
Charlie, too, gets wrapped and twisted in First Love’s tentacles. From the first shot of Sam, her hair haloed by the floodlights of the football field, we know she has Charlie’s heart. And it’s Sam’s pretentious older boyfriend that prompts Charlie to ask Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) the question at the top of my essay: “Why do nice people choose the wrong people to date?” Again, Charlie and I are one-in-the-same here. Seeing a person you care about deeply in a parasitic relationship is one of the more painful things in life, especially in college. Because relationships in college, especially Southern relationships at Southern universities, tend to lead to marriage. So this feeling of hopelessness and longing Charlie feels for Sam when she’s dating Craig, this feeling is magnified when you’re in the Deep South, and it seems like every other day someone is getting engaged. Which is why I also gravitate to the other half of the conversation between Charlie and Mr. Anderson. If you truly love someone and care about them, you have to try your hardest to let them know their relationship is not healthy. That isn’t to say, you are the person you believe they should be with (though you can hope), you just know they need out. This revelation in Perks is the one that hits home the most, the one that puts a lump in my throat and a pit in the bottom of my stomach.
It’s a harsh truth, but any human who testifies that they enjoy being alone is lying. And I have said this to one too many people. We need compassion and love and to be held and someone to talk to about the hard things the Universe throws at you. To be truly on your own, you must live with yourself and yourself only. Loneliness is a cyclical emotion that feeds on itself; the more you think about the why and how this was brought about, the worse it gets. Your malicious thoughts steep in your mind until they’re strong enough to rip apart your brain because you don’t have an outlet. And it’s so incredibly difficult to swim out of that violent whirlpool. Charlie experiences the full force of this when Sam and Patrick both leave for college; his mind spirals and snowballs as he realizes the crushing weight of losing his friends. He’s only known Sam and Patrick for a short amount of time, but he’s built a connection and emotional dependence on them. When that’s ripped from him, he’s once again sucked into the whirlpool.
Of course, there are better and more grand films that deal with loneliness, such as Her (2013) and Tokyo Story (1953), but those films are different animals. The kind of loneliness in Perks is the kind that people encounter first in their lives. This isolation and dejectedness in high school or college runs rampant and affects everyone who passes through those arenas. Fortunately, this loneliness does pass. Though, it does take time and an unprecedented amount of effort. Friendships are established, parties are had, and bonds are made. Charlie stays friends with Sam and Patrick even after they’ve graduated and moved away. And in the end, even with its darker themes of suicide and molestation, this is a truly feel-good movie, and one that I recommend to everyone. This film has buoyed my spirits on more than one occasion, and I believe that is the sole purpose of this film. Her and Tokyo Story are magnificent pieces of cinema, but it would be wrong to say they possess happy endings. The Perks of Being A Wallflower celebrates its misfit characters and revels in its optimistic conclusion. This will forever be a favorite movie of mine, one that I can watch by myself and know that the future will hold better things.