Review by Ken Burke
Short of prison, high school is likely life’s most miserable experience for many of us unless a like-minded group takes you in, as is the case here with freshman Charlie.
If you’re wondering where the title of this review comes from, I’ll credit John Guest, co-leader (along with Robert Gay) of the group of misfits from Ball High School, Galveston, TX, 1965-66, in which I proudly acknowledge membership, the JR’s (which originally stood for Jubilant Retards until our clueless collection of outcasts [although not without accomplishment, for example some of us—including me—were Honor Graduates, Robert was the Valedictorian, Nick Kyprios was the Battalion Commander of our R.O.T.C. unit—believe it or not I was also a high-ranking officer in that too, but just as a strategy to get out of the torment of P.E. not because of any staunch patriotism] finally understood how offensive that name was to the mentally disabled, so we changed it to Jigolos for Rent—yes, I know that’s not how you spell “gigolo” but that just added to the “charm” of our self-image [and most of us would have had little luck at such rental services anyway]), who came up with this as one of the cheers that we offered in our mix of school spirit and sarcasm at the weekly Friday night football games. I hadn’t thought of that in quite a while until seeing Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Also with screenplay adapted by him from his 1999 novel—talk about an over-achiever! What next, Stephen? Are you going to teach Spanish and run the Glee Club?), in which Patrick (Ezra Miller) offers a similar bit of rah-rah irony with his “Be aggressive, passive-aggressive!” chant at the Mill Grove H.S. Friday-night game, which doesn’t seem to be much different from what our B.H.S. Tornadoes were hearing from their loyal separatists almost 60 years ago. (“Elevator, elevator, we got the shaft!” was another one of ours.) In fact, I’ll bet that little has changed with the essential high-school experience since then (except easier access to alcohol, drugs, and sex—ah, the frustrations of being born too soon), where jocks and prom queens sit atop the hierarchy, serious students and geeks have to find solace in each other’s company to avoid being trampled by the more dominating species, and some are just too shy or damaged to barely be able to endure this 3- or 4-year hazing ritual seemingly required by the U.S. Constitution in order to be allowed into some level of independent adulthood.
Such is the situation with the Wallflowers at Mill Grove, a group largely led by Patrick, his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson), and their closest friends, a refuge for these non-conformists determined to claim their own space in their insulated subset of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s in opposition to the mindless jock pranks and brain-dead classroom attitudes of their fellow educational captives, a situation that brought back a cluster of relevant, cherished memories of my own uninhibited, unconventional JR’s (although the Wallflowers seem to come from a bit higher social class than me and most of my old gang, or at least they have access to much bigger, more lavish houses for their much wilder parties than we ever did). As least the Wallflowers are secure unto themselves, that is until they encounter complex new freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman), a reclusive kid who gets the usual encouragement to “just make friends” from worried, well-intentioned Mom (Kate Walsh) and Dad (Dylan McDermott)—but at least these parents exist in Charlie’s world where the rest of the teens in his large high school seem to never encounter their elders, as if Mills Grove is where Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” is set (a comment stolen from my insightful wife, Nina) so that these kids just keep growing older without any coexistence with parental units (from France or otherwise; if you’re also born too soon for this modern world you’ll get the SNL reference, otherwise Google it as usual). Charlie doesn’t have much coexistence with anyone in his new surroundings either because of traumas he’s been carrying for years (more on that later, if you can stand my usual spoiler strategy), aggravated by the fact that his best (almost only) friend, Michael, killed himself a few months ago (a connection Charlie possibly hasn’t chosen to break yet, as he frequently narrates the film to us through the device of ongoing letters to an unspecified friend, maybe his departed buddy or maybe just some hypothetical replacement). However, new friends blossom for Charlie with the Wallflowers’ so-out-they’re-in-crowd (just like the JR’s at our best, although Witness Protection Program structures don’t allow me to provide details), especially Patrick and Sam, then really especially Sam, although she’s already hooked on a college guy who’s (naturally) not worthy of her special charms. If you can’t guess that, despite her graduating and going off to college herself by the end of the film, she and Charlie finally link up then I guess my spoiler tendency has already ruined the telegraphed ending even before the more important stuff gets revealed and maybe this film is less predictable than I think it is, except in one major regard.
As it turns out, most of the prominent Wallflowers have secrets to hide: Patrick, not so much that he’s gay but that his football jock lover, Brad (Johnny Simmons), is too so he’s clandestine with their encounters in order to protect Brad from being outted any more than he has been already (Brad’s father caught them once and beat his son brutally); Sam, that she was the school slut as a freshman (no secret to the rest of the seniors but new frosh Charlie doesn’t initially know what “damaged goods” he’s attracted to); and Charlie, both that he carries the burden of thinking that his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) was killed in a car crash because she was on her way to buy him a birthday present (a childish self-torment but a very real one as I learned about my now-departed mother-in-law who as a young girl forget to get her sick mother a requested glass of water and then silently blamed herself for years for the death of her parent) but more importantly because—Major Spoiler Alert! Read the rest of this paragraph at your own risk!—sweet Aunt Helen had been molesting Charlie for years, which makes it difficult for him to accept Sam’s eventual advances even though he desperately wants to, and adds further complexities to his traumas as he anguishes over whether he wished that Aunt Helen would die. Charlie carries around a lot of confusion and anger because of his own history as well as what he sees around him that furthers his sense of distance from our constantly cruel society—the way his older sister, Candace (Nina Dobrev), is physically abused by her boyfriend, the way that freshmen are hazed by seniors in his school, the way that the jock seniors (including Brad, to protect his own secret) torment and attack Patrick—so Charlie periodically suffers breakdowns and blackouts but also spontaneously lashes out at the jocks, proving that either adrenalin or his innate boxing ability will likely protect him and his friends from any further harassment for the rest of his public education career (given how little this touching but predicable story deviates from expected patters I see Charlie going to some private college someday to study creative writing, probably with Sam already there in graduate school getting an M.A. in feminist theory). By protecting Patrick and not pursuing Sam until she’s ready to fully embrace him on a fall visit back home from her own freshman semester at Penn State, Charlie is able to finally start opening up his life to what’s happening around him rather than desperately trying to avoid the ghosts of his past (he concludes with the sense that he’ll no longer be writing those letters to his anonymous “friend” that serve as the narration continuity of the story’s delivery) just as Sam and Patrick move on from their own secrets, although Sam implies that she won’t really disengage from home as long as Charlie’s still there in high school waiting for her occasional returns.
The reason why I could only give The Perks of Being a Wallflower 3 ½ stars is that, even as removed as I am from my own high-school experience of so very long ago, I just couldn’t see much that this film probed into revelations of what those terribly timeless experiences are about until we get really deep into the running time and learn Charlie’s tragic backstory; I know that from a dramatic-structural point of view that these heavier aspects need to be kept from us so as not to turn this into a simple clinical account of how a psychologically-damaged young boy finally begins to grow beyond the terrors that haunt him as he reaches adolescence, but until we get to the meatier stuff of the plot I just found the rest of the story about a hostile high-school environment for those not of the “chosen ones,” difficulty fitting in for the shy and unconnected, redemption through acceptance from like-minded outsiders, and the traumas of teenage “true love” to be well-observed and well-acted but just not so unique as to require much thought after the screening. As we dig further into each of the 3 protagonists, especially Charlie, the film takes on more resonance, leaving me with better appreciation for how these 3 are struggling with a lot more of significance than just typical teenage hormone and self-loathing attacks, but it just took a bit too long to get there for me to embrace it as quickly and as warmly as I wanted to. Charlie’s final statement, “And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite,” brought back the simpler but just as determined chant of my own youth, “JR’s rule!”—and in that moment I could really embrace the full fragrance of the Wallflowers, but even then I had a melancholy counter-moment, wondering if Sam will really be able to continue finding the depth she desires in a companion and a relationship in younger Charlie (not so significant later in life but dangerous at this period, as a few years can feel like a few decades when he’s still dissecting frogs and she’s moved on to post-industrial hegemonic global-collusion econometrics [or some such thing]). I hope that Sam and Charlie can continue to embrace that infinity before the pressures of finding jobs, paying back loans, and really breaking away from childhood baggage intrude too soon, too often. If we really “accept the love we think we deserve,” maybe they’ll keep thinking they deserve what they’ve found in each other, not what they previously accepted out of self-critique. But if not, at least they’ll always have Pittsburgh (“Play it, Sam”).
And, as you well know, I’ll always have more to say in these reviews. Try as I might to confine myself to a single subject during these body-and-soul-consuming workweeks I keep finding reasonable connections to other movies that just have to be mentioned in regard to my primary analysis; such is the case this time with Julian Farino’s The Oranges (made in 2011 but just now getting somewhat of a release), in which the need for a couple of the younger, post-high-school characters to find a direction for themselves is reminiscent of the adolescent struggles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, although in this one there’s a lot more interaction with their parents than the little we saw with Charlie in the previous film. In fact, the main interaction—an affair between father David Walling (Hugh Laurie) and forever-across-the-street-neighbor-daughter Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester)—is the focus of the story and the defocusing agent for pulling apart these long-time friends (and near-siblings in the children’s generation—primarily Nina and former high-school classmate Vanessa Walling [Alia Shawkat], although Vanessa’s older brother Toby [Adam Brody] plays into the mix as well as the intended beau for Nina, at least where mother Carol Ostroff [Allison Janney] is concerned). The final player in this collection of disrupted lives is Paige Walling (Catherine Keener), already feeling disengaged from David before he and Nina create their crisis, but despite that she’s the one who’s most (but just barely, compared to Vanessa) angered by the affair as she rents out an entire local B&B, not only to get away from her estranged husband but also to give him a shot to the wallet rather than to the gut. The title comes from West Orange (where this all occurs) and East Orange, NJ, places I know little about except what I heard in an old Bob Dylan song, “Talkin’ New York” (from the 1962 debut Bob Dylan album: “So one mornin’ when the sun was warm, I rambled out of New York town, Pulled my cap down over my eyes, And headed out for the western skies. So long, New York, Howdy, East Orange.”). As best I can tell West Orange is more affluent than its neighbor, or at least that’s how it looks in The Oranges where Vanessa may not have found her NYC career as a designer yet but everyone else looks quite comfortable, that is until David and Nina (gotta watch out for those lusty, dangerous Ninas—as I know from experience) look at each other too much and all hell breaks loose.
The Oranges has its humorous moments, its reality checks about the difficulties and insanities of relationships, and its encouragements to find stability in the rational rather than the irrational, but overall it comes across to me as too predictable and too thin in substance, a high-concept story idea that doesn’t really know where to go after the initial premise takes its immediate toll on both families. If I were rating it I’d say 3 stars but you might want to examine it further starting with the official website at http://welcometotheoranges.com/http://www.elyrics.net/inc/vidplay.php.)
If you’d like to explore more about The Perks of Being a Wallflower here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJnR9owQLWs (short interview with Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and others from the film)
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