Here is a movie for anyone who has a need to revisit the emotional maelstrom of their high school years. Like we all want to do that! However the beauty of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the gentle way the audience is guided to reflect on the particular flavor imparted by adolescence on universal themes of the quest for love, integrity, and a functioning sense of self.
A trio of sympathetic teenagers provide the drama. There is the charismatic Patrick, his sparky step-sister Sam, and Charlie.
Charlie is an introvert who is entering freshman after being hospitalized in 8th grade for psychotic hallucinations. He has enough trepidation on his 1st day to have precalculated exactly how many days he will need to survive 4 years of high school.
From this small amount of information we infer that Charlie is highly anxious, perhaps clever, and that he may be subtly announcing his intention to make it through the choppy high school waters he anticipates. We don’t know why he has experienced so much upset in his life–he seems to come from a loving family. But he enters school friendless and trying to find his way.
Charlie has access to all the sensitive aspects of his personality as he brushes against the usual suspects of this film genre. For example there are cliques of jocks, partiers, and artists. With the exception of a patient and nurturing English teacher, adults are of little consequence in Charlie’s world. Without any grown up antagonists, the theme is unadulterated adolescence , that is, the interplay between the need for self discovery and perhaps determining how one is unique, pitted with a desperate need for peer acceptance and romantic/erotic love.
In Wallflowers writer-director Stephen Chboskey for the most part does not inflict the audience with the various traumas Charlie incurs. The Black Swan, which takes an entirely different approach, this movie is not. (For my review from February 12, 2011 http://www.psychologyofeverything.com/2011/02/black-swan-review/).
Charlie’s good fortune begins with a quick friending of Sam and Patrick, the step-siblings played engagingly by Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. In fact this is the type of role many a Watson fan must have fantazied she would land in her post-Potter career. Enough good things cannot be said about Logan Lerman’s star turn as Charlie.
Together, Sam and Patrick are like fairy-god high school seniors who have no interest in hazing a quiet freshman. They introduce Charlie to alcohol, drugs, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show in all its audience participation late 70’s glory.
Charlie endures the crush he has on Sam, but can’t fully express. He also benefits from Patrick’s attention that is mostly like a caring older brother until it briefly flares sexual (on Patrick’s part) and then is graciously dispatched toward the end of the movie.
Knowing nothing about this movie until seeing it yesterday, I can only surmise that it contains a good deal of autobiographical material of writer-director Stephen Chboskey.
I WARN THOSE NOT WISHING TO KNOW KEY PLOT DETAILS TO NOT READ FURTHER, as I discuss details of Charlie’s psychology and how the story resolves.
A definite “occupational hazard” of being a psychotherapist, especially one who rarely sees movies early in their release, is that there is no such thing as “spoiler alerts” during therapy sessions. If a client desires to discuss a movie plot and asks if I mind, I say that I am all ears. It is after all my client’s time and I have long reconciled myself (most often happily) to this aspect of the work.
Sam and Patrick serve as catalysts for Charlie’s growth. Riding together in a pick up truck Sam suddenly stands in the back of the truck going 50 mph with her arms thrust out doing her best imitation of Leonardo DiCaprio as King-of-the-World. All the while they are being serenaded by David Bowie on the radio playing “Heroes,” a song they are hearing for the first time. Charlie turns to Patrick and confides, “I feel infinite.”
This moment expresses not just a sense of wonder or the sentiment from Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands, “It ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.” No this is more. This is the discovery that such a feeling not only exists, a miracle in itself after feeling saddled with so much angst, but portends that Charlie may now be able to access such reverie.
To be heroic in love could be achieved in many ways. But for Charlie it is having the emotional courage to declare his love for Sam. The insight that accompanies this act is that, “One accepts the love the one feel one deserves.” A great aspect of adolescence is that such epiphanies can provide inspiration for a lifetime.
As with any hero’s journey, it is through being able to face rather than avoid pain that one forges one’s character and perhaps even one’s destiny. In Charlie’s case it is in being sexual toward Sam that he somatically triggers recall of his own sexual abuse by his aunt when he was a young boy.
The recovery of this memory occasions a psychological crisis for Charlie. During the subsequent psych ward admission he comes to terms with the double wallop of guilt which caused what I take to be the last hospitalization he will ever need.
With the help of a psychiatrist Charlie faces the guilt he feels over the death of his aunt who died in a car crash shortly after telling him that she was leaving to pick a birthday gift for him.
This death was always a retrievable emotional event for him. It is the newly uncovered information that he was molested by her that sent him around the bend. We can surmise he may have felt her death was his punishment for his participation.
While his psychiatrist was no doubt very helpful to him, the truth is, he could face his troubles because of the acceptance he found with his friends. We strongly expect that the next 995 days of high school will provide Charlie with more than his share of worthwhile days.
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