In 1999, Stephen Chbosky published his first and only novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In a little more than a decade, the book has become a modern classic among teenagers and adults alike. The epistolary novel follows Charlie, a sullen, naïve high school freshman, as he navigates the emotionally tricky waters of adolescence. But Charlie doesn’t suffer from Holden Caulfield angst, even if Perks is frequently compared to the Salinger classic.
Rather, Charlie falls in with the beautiful and enigmatic Sam, a senior on whom Charlie immediately forms a crush, and her gay stepbrother, Patrick. The duo then introduces Charlie to The Smiths, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a motley crew of supposed burnouts and punks, giving him his first real understanding of friendship and compassion based on cultural appreciation rather than convenient proximity.
Thirteen years later, Perks hits the big screen, and who better to take the helm than Chbosky himself? “I always knew I wanted to do a movie and make the movie myself,” he explains. “I needed enough distance from it so that I could see the book much more objectively. I’d be very unhappy if it wasn’t as good as the book.” Luckily, it is, and is perhaps even better. Set in the early ’90s (though never explicitly so), the film has an agelessness to it that harkens back to the ’80s films of John Hughes, a writer-director most moviegoers born after 1970 automatically associate with cinematic adolescence.
And like the best John Hughes films, Perks treats its characters appropriately. They are not annoyingly wise beyond their years, nor are they looked down upon. “I set out to respect what young people go through right at eye level,” Chbosky says. The subtle period setting was also deliberate. “I wanted the movie to feel as absolutely timeless as possible. One of my favorite movies is Dead Poets Society. It takes place in 1959, but it could have taken place last year.”
What is most surprising, however, is the treatment of Sam and Patrick, who under the control of any other auteur could have turned into stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl / Manic Pixie Dream Gay characters whose only role in the film is to guide young Charlie (played by Logan Lerman) into emotional maturity via their own quirks and precociousness. With Emma Watson and Ezra Miller in those roles, however, Sam and Patrick offer up more than the pretty looks of the actors portraying them. Watson’s Sam is glorious and tragic, already full of regret at eighteen and striving to overcome the mistakes of her very recent past. In Patrick, Miller delivers a surprising confidence and a recognizable vulnerability, a combination not seen in most gay male characters, much less those still in high school.
As for Chbosky’s agenda? Contrary to what most conservative parents and teachers will have you believe, it’s not to portray teenagers as drug-using, beer-slinging sex maniacs. In response to the novel’s frequent banning from school curriculums and libraries—and the film’s PG-13 rating—Chbosky says, “It was always marketed as an adult book. It still is. I think that anyone that sees the film would be hard-pressed to think it’s some exploitative, cynical Trojan horse trying to encourage drug use or a homosexual lifestyle or anything that certain groups would object to.” Instead, Chbosky hopes Perks will bring together audiences of all generations and facilitate a dialogue between them after the credits roll. “I hope kids will see it and feel respected,” he says. “In the same breath, I hope their parents will feel nostalgic and feel respectful of what they’ve been through.” Chbosky pauses, and with a glimmer of optimism, says, “Maybe then they’ll talk to each other a bit more.”
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