There are films that effortlessly awaken natural emotion, unexpected and from a place so deep within that you’ve forgotten it ever existed. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for all its pretense about high school life, is really about the adults we become when others aren’t paying close attention.
This message is subtle, and like everything else the film does, arrives in a way that feels incidental. More than anything, you come along for the ride because these characters are just so moving and interesting that the plot lives vicariously through their broken bits and wide open hearts. We are taken through Charlie’s freshman year – the holidays and dances and parties. We meet his new friends, two senior misfits named Patrick and Sam. But it feels like we are living his new religion with him, running headfirst into it alongside him. The plot is so insignificant compared to the story, the experience.
I was not a wallflower in high school, but deep down I knew I never fit. I still don’t. In our adult lives, we reinvent our histories, sharing only those stories that map our ascension to present greatness. For former adolescents who fit right in, as adults they scramble to find anecdotes that make them seem edgy. For me, as an adult I reach back for moments that magnify qualities I like about my present self. I regale tales of pranks I’ve pulled (I haven’t pulled that many) and exaggerate my rebellion. I try to forget that I came across as more of a good, nerdy kid than anything else. Because I know deep down it wasn’t true. I didn’t fit for reasons much subtler than a stereotype.
It would be glib to say I gravitate toward misfits. Rather, it’s that I can spot remarkable strength and depth from across a room, and I know that profound people are never accidental. They come from somewhere, risen from rubble and glass and other shit, their nails blunt from scraping apart the mold, tearing it down because pain is clarity. They stand tall atop this heap of Other People’s Bullshit, and there’s really no faking or hiding that kind of realness. I’m most at home when I find people like that. People who feel so much that they just don’t give a shit. If you know what I mean, you know what I mean.
Perks is precisely about kids who feel with a bottomless depth akin to that of dying men. And if you wonder how they came to feel so much at so young an age, you should. I won’t spoil it for you here, but there’s always a story. Sometimes many. When you know life – cleared away the rubble, pierced its skin, soared by its core and come out the other side – you know love. People like Charlie and Patrick and Sam build the best homes, give the best kind of love humans can muster. There’s a clairvoyance to their innocence, a knowing to their faith. There is a lot of pain in the world, and they know it. But that doesn’t stop them from seeing the beauty, from creating more of it. And if they can do this, what reason have I not to?
But the magic of Charlie, Patrick and Sam is that they’re not out to change any lives. They’re just trying to live their own. They won’t Mother Teresa you in the hallways. They are enchanting kids, but kids nonetheless. They still live the daily soap opera of adolescence. Their jokes, pranks and little wisdoms reside well within an expected range of maturity. This film isn’t trying to say that old souls should rule the world. Instead, it’s proving that profound teenagers, as teenagers, know just as much as acculturated adults do. Our adult selves, after all, are mostly a projection of our adolescent counterparts. If we’re lucky, the two are constantly in dialogue with one another.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower succeeds most as a story about that beautiful, conscious limbo between diuretic childhood and constipated adulthood. It’s infinite, and free, and so large that our hearts can barely take it all in, can hardly afford not to. I remember that feeling. I remember rolling down the Berkeley hills in an old car with three other friends (all wonderful misfits in some way), the right song playing on the radio accompanied by the perfect, fullest silence I have ever experienced. To this day, I am still in love with that moment. And the thing about the right song in moments like these, is that there really can’t be a wrong song. The moment makes the music.
And whatever I have been, whatever I will be, I was once a girl in that car. The real perk of being a wallflower or a misfit or damaged goods is that if you survive – if you survive – you get to know what it’s like to really live.