If you were a certain kind of teenager in 2012, The Perks of Being a Wallflower would’ve been your Bible. It defined how it felt to be on the outside looking in, yearning for respite from the trauma of high school where kids grapple with identity daily while the place you’re supposed to go when you’ve got it all figured out looms eerily in the distance; college.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a freshman longing to belong somewhere when he crosses paths with the dynamic sibling duo, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who are seniors. Patrick and Sam have this allure. The air of confidence surrounding them is the fragile kind, masked by “good” music taste that “sounds so much better on vinyl” and eccentric hobbies like performing Rocky Horror at the local cinema or standing in the trunk of a Ford Pickup as Bowie’s Heroes blasts from the radio. Charlie, mystified by their nonchalance and seemingly quick-witted quips — “welcome to the island of misfit toys” — steps into their world, and at a party, Patrick officiates their friendship with a sweet sentiment; “You see things. And you understand. You’re a wallflower.”
From there, we watch as Charlie learns how to be a friend, fall in love with an idea, not a person, wrestle with trauma and question how much he deems himself worthy of love having experienced such pain.
The author of the 1999 novel of the same name, Stephen Chbosky, steps into the role of writer and director for the film, which is rarer than it should be. He succinctly weaves elements of the novel through voiceover, which simultaneously frames the story from Charlie’s perspective. We, as an audience, understand that the lens from which we’re viewing the world is that of a 15-year-old boy, which gives us agency over how much stock we put into his feelings about what we’re seeing. There is a male gaze layered over the women as we see Charlie deify Sam so much that she becomes mythical as a character. She is wild and beautiful yet sensitive and mysterious. When we see her arms wide, embracing the elements through the tunnel and into the night, we, too, want to be part of the narrative that Charlie is writing, one where we “feel infinite”. This singular line has been peppered in bios, put on stickers and become one of those things so commodified it’s made a mockery of, but there is something to be said about being 15 on a night in early Autumn where anything in the world feels possible. Though the book was set and published in the ’90s, it is timeless. When the film hit cinemas in the UK, I was sixteen years old and had moved to complete my final two years of high school at what we call college (the two years before university). Like Charlie, I possessed wallflower qualities, but the film became a gateway to making new friends at school. Perks was released one month into the academic year, and I found it easy to identify myself among the misfit toys. Two of my first friends I made at college came through connecting over the story, and somehow it articulated the fear we were all innately aware of: time.
Time is the film’s antagonist. The shots of clocks on the wall exist to remind us that this feeling of infinite possibilities is running away faster than Charlie can hold onto it. Chbosky has them handcraft their time away through a shop class assignment where they make a clock. In this, Patrick (who has famously repeatedly failed the class) receives a C- to pass and be one step closer to college. Later, he gifts the clock to Charlie, where a literal passing of time between two friends exists to show that, in retrospect, high school feels like it runs away from you. There are montages of the seasons passing, capturing the ephemeral nature of being a teenager. Being ten years older and reluctantly accepting that I’m knocking on the door of my late twenties, watching the film evokes that nostalgia. It makes you acutely aware that sixteen is the start of the years tumbling away from you. For Charlie, it feels like the longest thing in the world. He quantifies that by numerically noting how many days he has before he graduates. It’s universal to be so young and wish away years in want of “life” beginning. To quote Greta Gerwig, “when you’re a teenager, you always feel as if life is happening somewhere else.” The coming-of-age genre is always playing with this concept, and Charlie is no exception to this curse. While this is so desperately what he wants at the start, as connections form and he grows closer to Sam, he craves an interlude where he can soak up the feeling of loving and being loved. Falling in love simultaneously stops time altogether and speeds it up exponentially, which is what happens as Charlie stumbles deeper into his feelings for Sam.
At the height of the film, Charlie’s ardour for time to stop manifests in him sharing with Sam his long-term feelings for her. He reels off reasons for not actively pursuing her and explains that he only wanted her to be happy, to which Sam asks, “what did you want?” Charlie has no answer to this. Sam goes on, “you can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. I don’t want to be somebody’s crush. I want people to like the real me.” There’s something profoundly devastating in this. In life, we make rules for ourselves, and until we internally reconcile that those rules are private and other people are not privy to the thoughts we don’t express, we are in a game of one. Chbosky respects the spectrum of emotion and the intensity at which it’s felt in adolescents. We tend to mock our younger selves for yearning so desperately for the seemingly insignificant. We grow older, what we believe to be wiser and shrink our desire to a manageable size to survive. In this scene, Charlie and Sam feel with full intensity. Unbothered and uninterested in censoring themselves. The world hasn’t taught them how yet. They’re learning this at that moment. Even watching this in 2022, it feels radical. Teenage representation on screen has only come in leaps and bounds over the last decade, but I remember how liberating it felt to watch the ensemble cast honour every pulse of emotion that rushes through them. It’s impossible, at that age, to know what the implications may be because you are experiencing so many firsts. Uncovering love, or what you imagine love to be, at 15 is the headiest realisation of all.
There are many times throughout Chbosky’s script that describe Charlie as “devastated in love” or a variation of this. It’s easy to mock. What do you know at fifteen about being in love? In a conversation with his beloved English teacher, Charlie asks, “Why do nice people choose the wrong people to date?” What follows is another much-quoted line, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Where do we learn what we deserve? In the way we experience first love. Our early encounters shape how we receive the words “I love you.” Chbosky weaves Charlie’s trauma throughout the film in snippets of flashbacks that eventually expose the abuse he received from his aunt. Sam talks candidly about her experience [sleeping] with guys who treated [her] like shit, and the two of them share this understanding that what they want for each other is something neither one of them has experienced. They long to give the other person what each of them individually craves. Though Charlie’s feelings towards Sam are overtly romantic, Sam’s are left assumed otherwise. She loves the idea that she could one day accept the love that Charlie so wants to give her, even if it’s something he isn’t fully aware that he’s not ready to give.
The tender way Chbosky so lovingly brings his novel to life is what made a generation fall in love with it. That love seeps into every corner of the film, including the carefully curated soundtrack by Alexandra Patsavas, who is responsible for music supervising our youth with credits including the Twilight saga, Gossip Girl and Catching Fire. The eleven songs in this film that formed friendships range from The Smiths to Cocteau Twins to Bowie. Each melody is impossible to listen to without envisioning the exact moment it plays in the film. Patasavas concocts nostalgia for the audience while evoking an immediacy for the characters. The songs entwine the audience with Charlie, Sam and Patrick as they create memories to music. At that moment, they feel alive and like nothing can threaten their youth, and for a moment, we, as an audience, are invited to join that ecstasy.
Something about The Perks of Being a Wallflower feels simultaneously immediate yet bittersweet.
While it gets its complaints for being pretentious or inauthentic – a criticism I defy – it reaches so deep into hearts that the value it had at 16 still feels ever-present at 26. The Perks of Being a Wallflower helps me respect my younger self whenever I feel the temptation to cringe at her for saying too much, being too loud or honouring every impulse. Perks helped me and many others articulate things we couldn’t put into words. In Charlie’s final monologue, he says, “there are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17,” but Chbosky made something that helps people remember. If you were a certain kind of teenager in 2012, you get to hold onto this film forever and remember how it felt to feel infinite.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released by Summit Entertainment on October 12, 2012. It is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Photo by John Bramley / Summit Entertainment