Perhaps I have never been infinite. I have definitely never been an American teen, nor did I ever attend an American high school. To be an American teen is an experience not really comparable to any other in the world; while higher education has at least some commonalities the world over, and adults are much the same everywhere, the American teen lifestyle as promoted on film is uniquely homogeneous and largely alien. The American high school milieu is so foreign that it should realistically be almost as unmarketable to Australia as the infernal baseball film.
But The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not a hard sell simply because of its alien subject matter; it’s a hard sell because no one in it is human. No one in this film is someone you would wish to exist, or someone who would actually be able to exist in the real world. No one in this film or the novel it is based upon has a life outside the celluloid or the page. They have only what author, screenwriter and director Stephen Chbosky has to offer them, which is precisely nothing.
Desperately grasping at a desire not to be inert, The Perks of Being a Wallflower goes beyond simple excruciation. Every moment of this film, save its quite nice soundtrack, conspires to make the viewer hate it.
And yet I am alone. I am the proverbial wallflower at the school dance. I am standing on the outside looking in at a party of people toasting Charlie, never quite understanding what they see in him. Not just unwilling, but unable to see exactly what there is to this bloodless mannequin of a human being.
I hated this film more than I normally hate anything. I can’t say for certain that I hated it more than its attendant novel (and I certainly hated that), but I can safely say that this is one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life to date, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. If someone wasn’t holding my hand, I possibly would have run from the cinema.
This is not a profitable way to spend 102 long minutes. This movie is infinite.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is writing a series of letters to someone to get his feelings in order as he begins high school. It is immediately apparent that he has no friends, and is bullied in the way that only an American high school student can be. Soon enough he meets cool senior students (and siblings) Patrick and Sam (Ezra Miller and Emma Watson), and they think he’s amusing, so they keep him around like a pet.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows these three, and their ancillary friends, through an academic year of what we are supposed to take to be the typical American high school (that is, some kind of nightmarish hellscape from which the only escape is graduation or death).
When I was reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it took me a while to realise that the protagonist was not, in fact, ten years old or severely autistic. If Chbosky could have found a happy medium between himself and the pseudo hyper-literate John Green (who admittedly did not exist at the time of the novel’s publication), then we could have ended up with a fleshed out teen character.
By pouring the soulless goop that makes up Charlie into the mould of Logan Lerman, we can at least tell that he is supposed to be of an age. Lerman himself is not a bad actor, but his direction here is to be blank, a toy with a sanguine smile. The other characters take Charlie’s doll-like nature literally, dressing him up and forcing him to do their bidding. All in the name of fun.
And this is a movie that thinks it knows all about fun. As Patrick tells him when they enter a house full of people variously sitting and standing around, “This is a party. This is what fun looks like.”
If we’re told what fun is, we’re having it, right? And Patrick and Sam are endless fun. Buckets of it. Their every utterance is so carefully calculated to be zany or “profound” that it becomes intensely difficult to tolerate any moment that Ezra Miller opens his mouth. A young man who was up to a year ago sinister has become a vector for flippancy supposedly built up to disguise a deep and abiding well of feelings. But as Patrick, Miller does not abide; he treads water, hoping that he can once more star in a movie that, even if it isn’t particularly good, is of some substance. In a certain light, Miller’s performance is good – but to be of that opinion you have to consider this film even halfway towards being a viable proposition, and I was patently unable to accept that.
As the crush or love object of Charlie’s dreams, Watson’s Sam fares far worse. Chbosky, despite his origins in student and independent film, is not visually minded. When he does try for something visual, it can’t rise above the amateur. While Charlie loves her, the camera cannot say the same. The normally radiant Watson is made dumpy, hackishly framed by the moon, constantly smirking, looking at Charlie with eyes that tell the audience that there’s something about him – but neither prose nor the film itself can tell us just what anyone sees in the boy.
Of course, one can argue that there’s a reason that Charlie is as he is, and that it’s revealed fairly clumsily towards the end (admittedly with marginally more skill in the film than the novel). The thing is that Charlie isn’t any way at all. He is persona non grata. People tell him that he is intelligent, that he could be a writer, but in no incarnation of this intellectual property is there a single inkling of what sort of a person this boy actually is. Chbosky doesn’t stretch the book’s insulting insinuation that Charlie understands people, because he’s plainly barely in his own skin, let alone able to imagine himself in anybody else’s.
It may sound ironic that I’m accusing this character of lacking empathy while flagrantly showing no empathy of my own, but it’s a simple fact that Charlie doesn’t ring true. He’s not just quiet, he’s empty. He isn’t charming; he’s a black hole. No positive feeling can be directed towards this movie because it does not engender any feelings of warmth of profundity.
You can make films based around characters who are hard to like, or are simply deeply loathsome, and those films can work. The characters here are by turns wispy, insubstantial and irritating, and yet we are invited to feel something that they never earn or deserve. We are invited into a year in the lives of kids who think themselves above their peers, kids who are dedicated to “good music” and yet, in their cloud of pretension, marijuana and LSD, they are unable to identify the David Bowie song “Heroes”. At this point it becomes painfully clear the film is completely disingenuous, even if you did have the privilege of attending an American high school at any point in your life. There’s no coming back from not knowing what “Heroes” is.
With most films, I’m at the very least able to say “I can see why someone might like this or that aspect of it”, or “this is clearly designed with this particular demographic in mind, and I fall out of that demographic range,” but The Perks of Being A Wallflower is an altogether different beast. I completely hated this film (save the soundtrack), and I cannot understand the generally good nature in which it has been received.
I make no apologies. I am learning how to love, but I don’t need to be taught how to hate. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has furthered my education, and I simply hope that I can stop burning inside at the mere thought of this property soon.
PS. If you’re wondering why I saw this film after I hated the book so much (and your wonderment is indeed valid), it is because I had made a pact to see it with someone who had loved the book (but never adequately explained to me the why of that). Perversely, my discomfort and my desire to melt into my chair made him enjoy the film all the more. Here’s looking at you, kid.