Few Perks for the Audience in Wallflower

 

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."]

 

 

 

  • Mia Reini

    Loved this review. “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.” What did you think of An Education as a “coming of age” story/movie?

  • Karen Huseby

    “We seem to have made our kids sex addicts as some of us made our kids crack addicts in the womb” is the most hard hitting line for me. I see it all around me in my generation. And why not? My public school Planned Parenthood sexual education was both graphically disturbing and lacking in much truth; be it the ontological value of humanity or the addictingly physical power of the sexual bonding chemical oxytocin. In no place are these misplaced beliefs more tragic than among my fellow Christians. In the five years I worked as a Youth Minister, I was approached by young girls asking me to help them and their friendwith this issue. Members of my own Catholic Parish refused to support or advance my efforts in ministry on the grounds that high school boys were too young and oblivious to the sexual and that it would cause generational chaos in their families who held the beliefs and lifestyle I wanted to oppose. So thank you Barbara for being more keen and courageous than most, you are truly fulfilling your duties as a Christian in a time and place that needs it most.

  • James P. Adams

    Don’t understand your comments.
    You obviously never read the book.
    The time line was not the eighties.
    The age timeline was incorrect….It was the eve of his 16th birthday when she kissed him.
    [NB: Edited for incivility]
    You didn’t review the story line, acting or how the cast delivered the movie.
    This comment is coming from someone probably considerably older than you and a degree in psychology.

    • barbaranicolosi

      “You obviously never read the book.”
      Obviously. But a good movie shouldn’t require a study guide.

      “It was the eve of his 16th birthday… ”
      That doesn’t make it less rape and it frightens me that someone with a degree in psychology would try to make a distinction that borders on trying to parse “legitimate” rape.

      I noted that I didn’t do a regular element review because the film was so uneven in its execution. Cheers -

      • James P. Adams

        A kiss is a tender thing….I can’t imagine you can render it anything but an initiation.
        JPA

    • http://www.cryptocatholic.com/ Father

      I have read the book four or five times, and liked it less each time. This review is spot on and has helped me to finally put into words several of the aspects that bothered me about the story.

    • Norris

      “The age timeline was incorrect….It was the eve of his 16th birthday when she kissed him.”

      In the rest of the world the eve of his 16th birthday means he’s only 15.

      Just sayin’.

  • bee

    I think whether or not they had sex is quite ambigious. In the book, the scene proceeds much as in the film, but unlike in the film, it is stated that they do not have sex in an explicit manner (Charlie does not want to).

    I think it is unclear in the film if they do or do not. Charlie and the other friends appear to be staying over at Sam’s house, and in the morning, Charlie is still fully dressed in his suit. Sam has a fairly worried look on her face in the morning, not a “romantic” one. And as he leaves her house, we see Charlie having flashbacks to various moments, some previously unseen by the viewers – but nothing about the sex. I think if Sam touching his thigh triggered his flashbacks to his aunt, surely a full sexual encounter would be almost unbearable, in that context, at that point?

    If I had to guess, I’d say the filmmaker left it open on purpose.

    What is odd, however, is the clear suggestion that Sam and Charlie will now possibly begin a relationship (at the very end of the film), despite the fact that she is a college student and he is 15 or 16.

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  • http://www.cryptocatholic.com/ Father

    This review is excellent! Thank you for it. The book has always bothered me. The sexual abuse seemed cheap, the reveal not really earned. You’ve helped me to clarify the deeper problem with it.

    Inspired by several years of reading your blog, I started my own in which I try to find deeper meaning, and tease out moral themes, in popular culture. I have excerpted small bits of this review on my site with an encouragement to come here to read the whole thing; I hope that’s okay.

  • Theater Teacher

    As everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I must say I was put out by yours. I think you missed the mark on this story. This was a story of a boy over coming his past, and finding the strength to do so with the love of his friends. Which I believe was beautifully told. Which one among us does not have that story to tell?

    [EDITED FOR PARSING YOUNG PERSON/CHILD RAPE AS NOT REALLY BEING RAPE... NOTE THAT A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD IS STILL LEGALLY A CHILD NOT A YOUNG "ADULT."]

    As we all know children always believe they have a better handle on the world than they really do. With that being said, you have to view the film as the film is intended to be viewed, with the eyes you had when you were 15-17. New experiences, changes in your social life, hormones raging etc.

    (Charlie) falls in love with a girl, Sam, who like Charlie, has gone through many extreme circumstances in her life that also makes her “beyond her years”. He also falls in love with Sam’s brother, Patrick. ( Best friend love) Who has also had to deal with rough struggles in his life, being gay. With in all this chaos in Charlies life he finds people that not only accept his awkward social behavior, they like him for it. They also relate to him on levels that he probably didn’t think anyone could. This was a (child) who really believed that making friends was hard and found a group that took him in and made him part of it. Perhaps this idea may not seem like reality with your experiences in your life, but it is not fiction either. Since I myself was a social misfit of the 90′s ( the same era as the film not the 80′s) I can tell you my group of friends growing up had freshmen and seniors. I also see these groups with my students still to this day.

    [ED. NOTE. PERHAPS. BUT SENIORS HAVING SEX WITH FRESHMEN IS SEXUAL ABUSE.]

    This story was about a boy who felt broken by his life and the cards he was dealt and found hope in the love he had found. When confronted with these feelings, in the “love scene”, many past memories come flooding back to him that he had suppressed for many years and was forced to deal with them. The story shown does not say whether or not Sam and Charlie have sex. That is left up to the viewer to decide.

    [EDITED FOR PARSING CHILD RAPE AS NOT REALLY RAPE. "RAPE IS RAPE."]

    That being said, to judge the movie strictly on the basis of age doesn’t seem really fair. If we were to change the age of characters and put them in a college setting, does this then make the movie better for you?

    [ED. NOTE: WELL, IT MAKES IT NOT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE COUCHED AS LOVE.]

    All we can really hope for is that parents be responsible and educate their children at home in their beliefs. Film seems to have become a scapegoat in the short comings of a lot of house holds Either way I thought the story was well told, and I was captivated by the characters and enjoyed viewing it.

  • Commenter

    Follow-up: I completely agree with Bee here that it is ambiguous at most and unlikely to say the least that Sam and Charlie even did have sex.

    • barbaranicolosi

      The “ambiguity” in the film was in the mode of an established screen convention that Hollywood has used from early in the days of the motion picture production code and then since when they want to indicate sexual activity without losing their PG rating.”A deepening kiss of two people on a bed and then a fade out” means one thing to the audience. It certainly did to me.

  • Jesus Christ

    You are a stupendous treasure.

  • Not a Narcissist

    Idiots might read this and think you are claiming that if you didn’t experience something, then it is not possible that someone else did. But it’s clear that you aren’t.

  • Not a Narcissist

    I am grateful for your absolute definition of rape.

  • jayden keeler

    I felt the movie told about Charlie’s transformation in a way that was relatable and could be understood by the audience. It doesn’t show that you need to experience a different form of your abuse or traumas in order to recover that scene simply served as a climax, no pun intended. The scene of him and Sam didn’t show that he had fully recovered from the incident with his aunt. That was shown later on in the movie through his treatment in the mental hospital and even after that.
    Many people will find this movie to be both relatable like I said earlier on and maybe helpful.

  • Jenna

    Just for clarification, can you explain to me your definition of rape, as referenced here?

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm going to have to go with President Obama here when he excoriated Congressman Akin: "RAPE IS RAPE.]

  • Katie F.

    Thank you for being a critical thinker. Although, I don’t agree with your consensus. :)

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: Thank you. Being a critical thinker makes me have to say that consensus doesn't mean what you think it means. :)]

    Charlie and Sam’s encounter was by no means “healing.” It triggered a psychological break down, during which Charlie received professional help and supervision for weeks. Watch the movie again, or at least read the book. Their first kiss was on the eve of his 16th birthday. Their supposed sexual encounter was months later, just before Sam was leaving for her summer of college prep.

    In the book, as they were kissing, Sam put her hand on Charlie’s clothed groin –

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: Oh, well, that's okay then....??!??!??!! Seriously, from what you have here, it seems clear that the book - which I did NOT review - indicates that Sam was molesting Charlie in light of his response of fleeing. So, that's a good thing about the book. The movie was flawed in failing to make all this clear.]

    – which was followed by Charlie being overwhelmed by his repressed memories of being molested and immediately fleeing. If he was a child, this would have been inappropriate and illegal.

    But sometimes people accept, seek out, or are overwhelmed by the love they think they deserve or have been coerced to think they deserve. It is up to the audience to decide what love we think the characters do or don’t deserve, framed by Charlie’s wallflower perspective. And, when it comes to teenagers, love is something they are only just beginning to experience, sometimes tragically, through the experimentation of trial and error. This movie portrayed teenagers doing some things that I definitely don’t agree with, but it did not hold back on the consequences–lots of pain and confusion amidst the fleeting thrills. Charlie’s sexually active sister becomes pregnant and gets an abortion (not included in the movie); the homosexual football captain, Brad, gets physically assaulted by his homophobic father; Charlie’s friend, Michael, commits suicide; Sam has a reputation as a slut because, when she was a freshman, guys liked to get her drunk and “do things to her [this IS rape].”

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: So, it would have been rape if Charlie was a girl? Unbelievable. Charlie was not only underage, he was mentally unstable, having been formerly institutionalized. If anything, he was less than his years in maturity, not more. The error the movie makes is in suggesting that any kind of experience makes for coming of age. They don't. Some experiences shrink us and retard growth.]

    Most of them survived with some form of hope for a better life and a brighter, more functional future. Some of them, like the unscreened Michael, didn’t.

  • mft

    Thanks ma’am…after Micheal Medved’s positive review of the movie I was considering going through the half-hour drive to the only thater that’s playing it near me and this post saved me from the annoyance.

    And by this time I should know better about the Christian/”conservative” movie buff subculture capacity to disappoint and self-delude…

  • Phar T. Lots

    Well, Aristotle *is* one of her role models.

  • Mallory Heath

    … I’m legitimately speechless that THIS is what you took from this book. As a 16 year old, this book changed my life. And as a 25 year old English teacher, I reread it and it changed my life again. I was able to meet Chbosky who told us a lot of Charlie’s persona is autobiographical.

    I think two consenting high school students does not justify being called “rape”- although in the novel they do have not sex. High school culture is a culture of young teens- who all have similar psychological mindsets. Teaching students that Sam raped Charlie is unacceptable and I’m appalled and offended that you would do so.

    • brnicolosi

      Are you really “legitimately” speechless? And an English teacher too, eh? Fortunately for the world, it doesn’t matter what you think is rape. The law says an adult with a minor is enough. Conscience says a Senior with a freshmen/sophomore is really, really icky. Cheers –

  • Naomi Dowell

    Wow, I never realized how much controversy there was over the topic of Sam being 18 and charlie only being 15. I agree that “rape is rape”, however I don’t believe that what happened in the book /was/ rape. Yes, Sam was 18 years old and Charlie was 15. Though, Sam didn’t force any sexual activity upon Charlie. She began to put her hand down his pants then stopped immediately after Charlie hesitated, and realized he didn’t want to.

    I personally think it would have been different if Sam ignored Charlie’s hesitation and proceeded with putting her hand down his pants, don’t you? She was completely kind and understanding about it, and Charlie even said, “She was being really nice to me…” (p. 203) I mean, she completely stopped…

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure a lot of people have ended up in a bed, or where-have-you, with someone they cared about, doing any type of sexual activity, and as person A goes to take it a step farther, person B has second thoughts and asks to stop. Which then, person A would state that it’s fine and they would stop.

    I personally wouldn’t consider that rape. I mean, yes, it was unwanted touching by someone who, yes in the case of Perks, is legally an adult but it didn’t proceed. Nothing was forced. Hell, Charlie didn’t even know the reason for his being un-okay with what Sam was doing because he hadn’t realized that it triggered a flashback at the time. “‘You’re not ready?’ She asked. I nodded. But that wasn’t it. I didn’t know what it was.” (202)

    I’m not sure if any of this made complete sense, but I really hope you understand and consider what I have said, but as multiple people have said, to each their own, and obviously you have a strong opinion regarding rape, as do I, and I respect that.

  • Niala Wesley

    on the senior/freshman age gap: I remember how wrong I felt it was on Beverly Hills 90210 when Brandon started dating a 14 year old during the beginning of his senior year of high school. And then on shows like Gossip Girl, the fans are smart enough to call out the wrongness of extremely experienced 19 year old Chuck taking the virginity of depressed 17 year old Jenny (whom he tried to rape when she was 14) and yet they can’t see the wrongness in things like 17 year old Blair coming home with 26 year old Marcus.
    on the “rape is rape”: thank you! I’ve had a lot of arguments over this. So many of the people I talk with on message boards seem to think that only a male violently forcing himself onto a female is rape. They don’t see sci-fi rape (when the sexual violation could only happen in a sci-fi world, such as a character switching bodies with someone against the other person’s will and touching or having sex in the other person’s body) or rape by fraud as real rape.
    I loved that Perks at least dealt seriously with a male being molested/raped. I’ve been ranting for a long time that the only time I ever see a movie cover the sexual assault of a male, it is played for laughs! The Nutty Professor 2 (the Dean gets raped by a giant guinea pig), Horrible Bosses (guy gets molested/raped by female dentist while under anesthesia), The Hangover 2 (guy gets drugged by friend and while under the effects has sex with a transsexual stripper, I’m not judging transsexuals, I bring it up because he was shocked when he found out and it was obvious that were it not for being drugged it wouldn’t have happened), Harold & Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay (forced and almost forced oral sex), etc..

  • Anonymous

    This was a very interesting article. You made a lot of great points, and I agree with all of them, pretty much. I think that this movie is actually much darker than it is made out to be. I would probably hate this movie, in fact, if I thought that it glorified all of the problems you mentioned. Charlie says something to his psychiatrist near the end about how he can see everyone’s pain, and it haunts him. I don’t think that this story glorifies the relationship between Sam and Charlie. I also don’t think that the scene where they apparently have sex is to be seen as any sort of “redemption” for Charlie. Remember, the next day he has a mental breakdown. I think that the scene where Sam first kisses Charlie and says something like, “I want the first person who kisses you to be one who loves you.” I think that this story sheds light on the matter of sexual abuse. And I think that it is very important for people to know about sexual abuse and that it happens far too often. And one of the biggest patterns is for people who have been sexually abused to “pass it on” and/or become homosexual. I actually believe that Mary Elizabeth and Patrick even could have possibly been sexually abused as children. However, I don’t think that most teenagers over the age of thirteen would benefit from watching this film. I think it should be rated R for thematic material, in addition to the other things. And I also think that Emma Watson did not do as great of a job as she could have. I think that Logan Lerman portrayed his character very well, and understood the deep thematic material in the script, but Emma seemed to be missing the point sometimes.


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