I finally saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower this past weekend and came away very impressed by it. It's a very moving coming-of-age story about a high school freshman named Charlie who feels out of place in his new school and ends up being befriended by some seniors who are also on the the fringes of their social group. Emma Watson plays the dream girl whom Charlie falls hard for, even as he's too timid to approach her as anything other than a friend. Charlie's other friends include a gay outsider struggling with the fact that the jock he's hooking up with is in the closet and won't acknowledge him publicly.
I've never read the book (written by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote and directed the film), so I went in completely fresh, beyond knowing what little had been shown in the trailers. One of the more remarkable things about this film is how we are immediately drawn into Charlie and his angst. From frame one - this is a film that just GETS IT. Voiceover is used to take us inside Charlie's head, but it never feels like an expositional cheat. It's never intrusive either. More often it's used as a transitional device and is only sparingly used to underscore scenes.
About halfway through, I realized something - this script was chock-full of little devices that I usually hate in these indie films. A quick accounting:
- a female object of desire who hews close to both the "emotionally damaged" dreamgirl and the manic pixie dream girl types.
- an exploration of how hard it is to be a gay teen.
- character dealing with suicide of a friend.
- character dealing with being sexually abused.
- an exploration of the social intricacies of high school hierarchy.
- a soundtrack that can easily be mistaken for a mixtape.
- characters bonding over music that they assure the other will "change your life."
For the last day or so, I've been trying to figure out how this film does things so right that it avoids the pitfalls. Frankly, I fear it's like the old saw about how examining a joke is like dissecting a frog; you can't do so without killing it. Still, I feel obligated to dive a little deeper, just to see what can be learned here.
I'm not saying that the above elements are always bad - but they DO have a tendency to be mishandled and often are cliched in indie films. Garden State hits most of those boxes and I despise the film for being the sort of quintessential self-indulgent "filmmaker works through his own emo issues" movie. And I know it's kinda trendy to hate on Garden State now, but I've been on this bandwagon since I noticed the most substantive thing any one would say about it was "It's such a good soundtrack."
I'm at the right age to have been in love with Natalie Portman for a while and not have it be creepy (she's about a year younger than me), so I should have been over the moon for her in Garden State, right? It feels like the intent is to make her that quirky girl who makes a man "feel alive again." And yet, it didn't work for me. As likable as Portman can be, she never made me believe that girl could really exist.
Emma Watson's Sam is a different story. It's probably unfair to say she's a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she definitely represents an archetype often overused in these indie films. The difference is that I don't think it's possible to watch Perks and NOT fall a little in love with Sam. She's fun, she's compassionate, but it doesn't feel like she exists only to further Charlie's story. The script does a good job of alluding to her history and shading her background in a way that fleshes her out without detracting from the story.
Better still, the film accomplishes all of this even while limited to just showing us Sam through Charlie's eyes. Being restricted to what Charlie sees of her somehow provokes us to imagine there's more to her life beyond those fringes. We never see her alone, so we're left to draw our own conclusions where the film doesn't fill in the blanks.
I think that's the key to the movie's appeal - the emotional identification with Charlie's perspective. It was funny to me how much I felt like I identified with Charlie as I was watching it even though, upon reflection, our high school experiences were very different. My school wasn't as cliquey, I had a lot of friends, many of whom I'd known for several years by that point. Unlike Charlie my home life was relatively undramatic, and so on and so on.
But what this film nails is that everyone feels like an outsider in some way. If we're lucky, we have that group of people that "gets" us. Charlie's high school world looks the way that most of ours probably felt. And the reason the film probably works is that it doesn't beat us over the head with this. I feel like the films in this genre that go wrong are the ones that try too hard to make sure we get the point. They're so fixated on making the statement that they deny us the discovery.
And that's it. We can probably watch this film and remember what it felt like to fall hard for someone who was so close to us, but also unattainably far away at the same time. One of the film's smartest moves is to not white-wash that into some kind of romantic comedy happy ending where Sam and Charlie realize that they're each other's one true love. We're given an ending that is satisfying, but also realistic, perhaps even wistful.
Why does this movie work?
Because it makes you feel.
Some films that you don't watch - you experience.
You understand why Charlie falls in love with Sam. You even see what she loves in him. You project your own experience on the characters. That makes it sound like the audience is doing all the work, but it takes skill to write material that can evoke those feelings.
Bravo Stephen Chbosky, and the cast that brought those words to life deserves equal praise.
Do you want your script to resonate like that? Do you want your words to stand out from the massive stack that every reader goes through each week?
Make me feel.