Childhood is Just as Messy as Adulthood: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)

Based on the 1999 novel by Stephen Chobosky, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was released in 2012. Chobosky directed this film and wrote the screenplay, reaping the rewards of having full creative license over the cinematic portrayal of his popular novel. The film stars Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller in a coming of age story about a mentally fragmented high school freshman who navigates through his first year with a few quirky friends who are damaged in their own right. Charlie (Lerman) enters his first year of high school immediately following a mental breakdown that forced him into a mental hospital the summer before. The film highlights the struggle of mental illness in children and it shows us with clear water clarity just what it means to soil your reputation early on in your secondary education.

This is a powerful story that covers a wide range of topics from mental health, drug use, and abusive relationships to young love, self-discovery, and sexuality. A powerful movie for anyone touched by the changes that come along with growing up, this film explores the depth of which teenagers struggle to find and accept themselves. For example, the character of Sam had a wild freshman year filled with experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and it impacts her relationships nearly four years later. The fundamental truth about kids and adults is that they change frequently and ferociously, reshaping from the experiences they’ve had. I remember kids from my high school who went completely wild and developed a “reputation.” It followed them, and they had a tough time shaking other peoples preconceived notions.

This film made me uncomfortable at times, a few moments stirring the urge to put my hands over my eyes out of sheer angst for the characters.  A great example of this is the scene where Charley and his group of friends are playing truth or dare. At this point in the film he has fallen unwittingly into the clutches of Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) who crafted a romantic relationship between them based on him accepting her Sadie Hawkins invitation, and he doesn’t contradict her out of fear of hurting her feelings. Patrick dares him to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room, and a surge of honesty bursts forth as he responds by planting a kiss on Sam, to the horror of everyone in the room. This act unintentionally opens old wounds between Sam and Mary Elizabeth, and Charlie is essentially exiled from the group. It makes me cringe how many uncomfortable situations we find ourselves in because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but the truth always comes out no matter what we do to conceal it. What follows his banishment is a painful regression into the mental darkness that lurks beneath his fragile exterior, and he begins to crack when the pressure is too much for him to take. It’s heart-breaking to watch because Charlie has a loyal heart and a kindness that is uncommon in people his age.

I enjoyed the story, but the sheer volume of problems this kid experiences throughout is almost overwhelming. At one point I had the thought, “Dear God, no one’s childhood could be that bad.” But that simply isn’t true. Many people spend their entire adult lives recovering from traumatic childhoods, as I’m sure thousands upon thousands of psychiatrists can attest to, and children cannot be protected from mental illness any more than their parents can be. The bottom line is that kids can’t avoid the tough stuff, no matter how hard parents try. We can only hope that with each passing year kids become more inclusive and forgiving towards each other so they can face the challenges of the real world together.

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