Abuse. Sexual, drug, child, emotional, bullying: in any number of forms, abuse is a resounding theme in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Perks is a coming of age film that is firmly grounded in this age. It’s basically along format “It Gets Better” video to a generation of wallflowers and outsiders. Perks tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he embarks on his freshman year of high school. In a new place with no friends he counts down the days till graduation and does all he can to not stand out. He is intrigued by Patrick (Ezra Miller), a flamboyant class clown who offers Charlie an island of acceptance when no one else does. Patrick and his sister Sam (Emma Watson who has entirely shed her Hermione Granger persona) bring Charlie into their group of Wallflowers and misfits.
Other than Emma Watson, all of the other “kids” who lead this film this have had small parts here and there but are virtual unknowns. They carry this film with gravitas and strength through its emotional ups and downs.
Based on a book by the same name, the narrative is set in the 1990s. It's interesting that the story is set twenty years ago rather than today where bullying has become so prevalent and part of the national conversation after the suicides of bullying victims. I think that is significant because in our age of facebook and twitter bullies have a much larger stage to abuse their victims but the notion of being an outsider in high school is nothing new. In some instances this is a retelling of all high school stories from Rebel without a Cause to Grease and everything in between and everything since then.
Charlie is plagued by demons –he’s lived through the hell of losing his beloved aunt and suffered through the suicide of his best, and only, friend. Charlie has a darker side and as the narrative progresses we learn more about that. His parents and teachers exist on the periphery, supporting him but never truly seeing all the parts of him and breaking through his tough exterior shell. This is about young people coming together to support one another and creating a family of their own. This concepts is not new in cinema, since James Dean burst onto the scene as America's rebellious teenager, "The Movies" have been fascinated by this concept of young people creating their own societies where the mainstream one has failed them. One significant difference here, though, is that the parents are not ineffectual or absent. Whereas traditionally teenagers found themselves unable to relate to or trust their parents, in Perks, they very much want to help their children, and when they do step in their help is appreciated and successful. However, here the teenagers are seeking their independence despite the best intentions and efforts of their parents.
Sexual abuse is another unfortunate reality of the teenagers at the heart of this narrative. Charlie by someone he loved. Sam by her father's business associate. These children have been unfairly been forced to grow up beyond their years. However, directly in contrast with the theme of abuse, though, is the theme of love. Charlie asks his teacher, about Sam, why do some people choose the wrong people to love. His teacher's response is, we accept the love we think we deserve. When you're a broken person you believe you only deserve broken love. It is through their close bond as a group that these three learn to respect themselves and to understand that they are in fact deserving of the good things that life has to offer, not only of the pain that it sometimes unfortunately throws their way.