The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – Written and Directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his novel of the same name; Stars Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller; Rated PG-13 for drug use, homosexuality, sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, and every other depressing thing you could throw in a movie about teenagers.
This is one of those little movies that is under the radar of most mainstream theatergoers, but is attracting a cult following from critics and, more problematically, young people. Several of the undergrads I teach are passionately devoted to the film and the book out of which it grew. It’s not a good film for lots of technical reasons. I wouldn’t even bother to review it except for the fact that it is connecting with the Millennials — and critics who really should know better but never seem to. Somebody has to say – for the record – while certainly well-intentioned, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is fundamentally perverse in the premise of the main character’s arc of transformation.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower proposes that the way to find healing from one kind of childhood sexual abuse, is to experience another kind of childhood sexual abuse. There it is. A lie. Particularly twisted because the second act of sexual abuse is couched as a loving self-donation of the older, more sexually experienced character for a young boy. It says a lot that Christians keep telling me they like the film because it is about keeping kids from committing suicide. Well, yeah, but we are supposed to believe there is a fate worse than death.
The story is set in the early 80’s (90’s? The movie was sloppy enough that I wasn’t really clear) and aspires to be a coming of age journey for a high school freshman loner named Charlie, played without notable distinction by Logan Lerman. It would help the filmmakers here if they had some sense of what the end goal of “coming of age” means. It doesn’t just mean having experiences. But more about the Millennial problem later…. Charlie has recently ben released from a mental institution because he became suicidal after watching his best friend shoot himself. As the conversation-driven narrative rambles along, it is revealed that Charlie’s social dysfunction is actually rooted in his experience of child sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved aunt (okay, take a breath because I’m not done yet.. okay, ready?) who then died in a car crash right after she had molested him. The child in Charlie continues to think it is his fault that his aunt died.
Charlie meets up with a couple of half-sibling seniors who are also social misfits but different from Charlie in their separation because they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. The films wants us to believe they are better than everybody else because they are proudly uninhibited and do dangerous, irresponsible things with gleeful abandon. The brother – too wise, life-loving and compassionate for the cruel straight world – is a “Project Runway is for the Half-Hearted” homosexual carrying on a secret love affair with the closeted captain of the football team. He’s way beyond his years in maturity in the cliched fantasy way that most movies today present homosexuals. His sister, Sam, played by Emma Watson, is her brother’s great defender and partner in the film’s unimaginative approximation of youthful adventurism. Sam, for whom Charlie immediately develops a devoted crush, is also a victim of child sexual abuse and has already led a life of reactionary promiscuity. Their odd coterie of friends are all using drugs and having sex with no real direction or guidance from their AWOL Boomer parents.
For a reason that I found baffling as a former real high school student in the same era as the film – and it’s really a story problem – the seniors adopt the morose, awkward freshman, Charlie, into their intimate circle of rebellious misfits. No Seniors I knew would have ever done that. Before his freshman year is over, Charlie is seduced by one of the other girls in the circle, before he finally finds redemption in having sex with Sam.
Yeah, that’s really the “story.” We’ve come a bit of a narrative way since Robin Hood and Swiss Family Robinson.
At its core, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another angst-ridden whine from the Gen X/Millennial folks asking why they are so screwed up without offering any answers, nor taking any responsibility for carrying well the admittedly difficult pallet of their lives. It’s an indictment of the results of the Sexual Revolution without the will to disown the habits of the Sexual Revolution. We seem to have made our kids sex addicts the way some of us made our babies crack addicts in the womb. The young people are angry about it, but they are trapped without real hope in the way that most addicts live and die.
The best thing in the movie, and undoubtedly the reason it got made, is the screen presence of Emma Watson. A weathered professional from her decade and a half growing up on the screens of the Harry Potter franchise, Watson knows her business of projecting relatable vulnerability through the camera and has more than her share of youthful loveliness. Too bad she doesn’t seem to know how to read and evaluate screenplays.
Of course, even though she plays a rapist here on the screen, I feel sure Emma Watson would shrink in horror at that accusation. As one of my students protested to me, “When Sam takes Charlie to bed, she is doing it as an act of love! It wasn’t rape!” To which I replied, “Charlie was just fifteen, still mostly inexperienced and a freshman. Sam was a sexually experienced Senior. And if there is anything we all have learned this past Fall it’s that ‘rape is rape.’ Right?” I went on to say that in the movie, that Sam was a victim herself doesn’t change the nature of her actions. She’s a young victim who, in failing to make a more heroic choice, victimizes another child.
My students still wanted to fight for the characters that had worked into their hearts. One expressed something to the effect that since both kids wanted to have sex, it wasn’t rape. Oh, what a mess we have here. So, I answered, “So, this is a movie about sex between consenting children?” They didn’t feel good about that either. I suggested to my class that saying “Rape isn’t rape when there is love,” is the same nature of argumentation which says, “a thing in a womb that is wanted is a person, and one that isn’t is a fetus.” We can’t change the nature of something by our wanting or willing. They still wouldn’t admit that the healing of Charlie in the movie is accomplished in an immoral way. So I had to say, “If a Senior had sex with my 14 year old nephew, I would not rest until that Senior was arrested, tried as an adult and sentenced to 20 years. Would any of you have had sex with a freshman when you were Seniors?!” They finally started to see the act for what it was. But is was nearly exhausting to get them there.
That people can’t see the rape at the bottom of Charlie’s “cure” is symptomatic of a society that has lost all contact with the study of philosophy. Aristotle’s foundational work, “The Categories,” shows that man is a kind of being who has the facility to group things that are alike in substance. He can discern types of things and separate them in his mind from other things. This is the foundation of our ability to make moral choices. But I only know that because I had to study philosophy as an undergrad. And we studied philosophy in a way that was geared to making us philosophers not students of the history of philosophy. That is a crucial distinction….But you’d have to have some philosophy to know how. (Of course, people could also be in error as regards this film because they are perverse in their wills, but I’m too much of a bleeding heart optimist to live in that world.)
(For the record, and I hate that we have to even write this but here we are…. Having sex with children is, by definition, rape, because children are not able to make the kind of choices and discernment that a sexual encounter requires. They don’t understand the emotional and psychological levers that sexuality engages and mistake the act for one that is merely physical. Most pederasts tend to speak about their crimes as having been done in a “loving” way, which rather defines their sickness, doesn’t it? They have lost the human facility to categorize their actions.)
I have also heard several people claim that this is a perfect recreation of the early 80’s era, and particularly the experience of being in high school. Um, God forbid! Really, any town which had the preponderance of abuse, neglect, drug use, promiscuity and cruelty that is the norm for the characters in this film would have long ago become the hell mouth of the apocalypse. Again, I was in high school in this era, and the kids who were this far gone into acts of rebellion were very notably on the fringe. Most of us, as I recall, were actually – very undramatically – doing homework, 4-H, and running cross country in high school. This film is far too cynical while parading itself as “real.”
So, here we go again into Millennial story angst. My feeling is that the Millennials have every right to act out in their storytelling their inarticulate outrage at the rudderless, upside down and often perverse way they have been raised. Because of the systemic failure of the public education system, most of them are flailing around in double ignorance, suspicious that they got a raw deal, but not sure how. They have a right to comiserate with each other in their stories. But I’m not sure the kind of wallowing that is the substance of Wallflower is going to do them real good – nor the Boomer dominated society which spawned them and dropped them so completely on their heads. The Millennials are so much more rebels without an articulated cause than the fifties generation even dreamed they could be.
I’m not going to detail all the technical failures of Wallflower in terms of its storytelling. This was the writer-director’s first effort and it shows it in everything that matters. The film is not important except in the way so many critics and young people have embraced it. Which is disturbing.
As I often say to my film students, “There is nothing entertaining about sexual abuse. If you are going to go there, you better have something very worthy to say. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaning on this particularly awful kind of human suffering to be the spectacle in your movie.” Wallflower does use flashbacks to the abuse episodes as spectacle, but its bigger fault is that it doesn’t understand what makes the abuse so wrong; which is why in having Charlie have “healing” sex with Sam, the movie undermines itself.
If you are a sociologist or cultural historian interested in the demise of Western Civilization, do catch The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you are any other human struggling to stay optimistic and hoping for inspiration and truth from your stories, pass.
[NOTE TO COMMENTERS: All constructive contributions to a civil dialogue are welcome here. Comments, however, that boil down to basically a tantrum of “Well, you’re a stupid poo-poo head!!!” will be edited for the amusement of the blogger. In the case of this particular blog entry, any comment which attempts IN ANY FASHION to justify the child rape under discussion here will be heavily redacted. Distinctions between “statutory” rape and “legitimate” rape will not be tolerated. “Rape is rape.”]