Perks of Being a Wallflower is a very Forrest Gump meets Dead Poets Society kind of essence. It is the kind of a movie that forces you to gain a fresh perspective on things and empathise with people even though you may not share their opinions or agree with their actions. It does what every coming-of-age movie should do, it makes us want to celebrate our quirks and uniqueness.
This is a story about finding your place and your people and finally feeling understood and appreciated. It is a story about loving yourself and about feeling larger than life despite having to go through difficult scenarios in order to ultimately get there. About coming out of your shell. About feeling alive and being grateful for it. It is the story about Charlie and Patrick and Sam. And each of these characters gives an element to the movie that increases its complexity and its relatability factor at the same time. It’s nostalgic, relatable, respectful, introspective, heartbreaking, honest and at times even enviable.
Charlie is a freshman in high school, and the textbook definition of a dork. He is smart, socially awkward, shy, observant, is constantly found with a book in his hand and befriends his English teacher. And like every dork, he is scared about starting high school, knowing full well that he has no friends and would probably have to face constant bullying for the next four years of his life. However, he wants to change his situation and he makes active efforts in this pursuit. He consciously writes letters to an anonymous “dear friend” and takes steps to try to become friends with Patrick and Patrick’s step-sister Sam who both quickly warm up to him.
At his first ever party, an unassuming Charlie eats a brownie and gets high. In his inebriated state, he walks in to see Patrick and Brad, the football team quarterback, making out and promises a vow of silence. When he confesses to Sam that he does not have any friends as his best friend shot himself last summer, the latter gets concerned and they all (Patrick, Sam, Bob, Mary Elizabeth and Alice) welcome him to their group and toast to their new “Wallflower” friend.
Charlie goes on to date Mary Elizabeth even though he still has feelings for Sam, perhaps as a way to get over them. However, he soon finds that he does not like Mary Elizabeth the way he likes Sam. Despite this realisation, Charlie is very non-confrontational with Mary Elizabeth as he does not wish to hurt her feelings – this is an important characteristic of Charlie’s to remember as it ties up with a later scene. Things get out of hand when Charlie kisses Sam on a dare, which causes problems to resurface between the two girls and the group collectively decides it is better if Charlie does not hang out with them anymore. Charlie is unable to deal with being all alone again and this series of events triggers memories of Aunt Helen’s death to him, for which he blames himself. After a brief time of being away from his friends, the trio reconcile when Charlie stands up for Patrick after the latter is beaten by Brad’s friends in the cafeteria, as they “welcome him to the island of misfit toys.”
There are certain paradoxes in Charlie’s personality, which give his character a sense of familiarity for the audience to relate to, while also gaining a soft spot for the boy. Like when in one of his letters, he says “I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.” Another very simple example would be when on the one side, he does not stop to consider that Patrick, being a senior, would not be want to be friends with Charlie, a freshman, and on the other side, he is shocked to find Brad go to the same parties as him since Brad is a jock and popular and would not want to be seen with people like Charlie and his friends. In simple terms, while a part of him definitely believes in the social hierarchy of high school, another part of him does not give regard to it at all as per his convenience.
Despite having his new found friends, Charlie remains largely subdued as he is often found simply reacting to things around him rather than participating in them himself. Though he is very expressive of his fondness for Sam and Patrick, it is most times shown through his actions towards them rather than spoken words. For instance, when he offers to help Sam study for her SATs or when he lets Patrick kiss him (again, being non-confrontational) or when he gives away all his copies of his books to Sam and Patrick so they could have a piece of him or when he gifts Sam his Beatles CD that his Aunt Helen had got for him before her tragic and fatal accident. The only couple of incidents when he actually expresses himself through words, is in his letters to his pen pal and his quiet, alone moments with Sam. Like when he says she is his favourite person in the entire world. Or when during the Sadie Hawkins dance, he tells her he will try not to make her too jealous with his date with Mary Elizabeth.
A recurring theme of the movie is how Charlie and the people around him, all have to go through difficult things, often because they keep picking people who treat them like they’re nothing. All the major characters of the movie are linked with this common thread – of being treated lesser than they deserve. Of being oblivious to the fact that they deserve more. Of making themselves small, as Patrick puts it. Candace (Charlie’s sister) is physically assaulted by her boyfriend for which she assumes responsibility, even saying she deserved it for egging him on. Patrick, who has to witness his boyfriend’s father beat him with a belt on being caught with Patrick and still not being able to help Brad as he just pushes Patrick away. Aunt Helen who was raped in her life and who died an untimely death. Sam, because of her boyfriend Craig who only cares for himself and not Sam’s happiness. Who basically had been cheating on her the entire time. Again Sam, for having been molested / raped as a kid by her father’s boss.
The story goes on to give us possibly one of the best dialogues ever to make us understand why these characters let people hurt them like this – We accept the love we think we deserve. That we ourselves decide how we deserve to be treated by people around us. That we let them make us small because we see ourselves as deserving nothing more than that. And that sometimes it is okay to need someone to remind you that you deserve more. As Sam puts it, “You can’t put everyone’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” She challenges Charlie to finally retire his confrontational, wallflower personality and actually participate in his life and take decisions for it. Sometimes, you need to express yourself and take actions.
While it is not really shown in the movie, Sam’s character takes a major shift once she lets her own message sink in. She stops blaming herself for everything that went wrong in her life. She finally retires her self-hate. Instead, she channels her energy into more positive things like focusing on her college acceptance and actually getting in to a “real college” and finally being with someone who is nice to her by getting together with Charlie as they kiss before she has to leave for her college. The kiss gives Charlie flashbacks on his childhood and the heart breaking moment reveals that Aunt Helen had molested / raped Charlie when he was a child. Suddenly everything clicks to us as an audience as we piece together that this was possibly why every time Charlie witnessed something bad happen to him or to the people around him, he would have memories of his Aunt come back to him. As if every trauma of his life was linked to her.
The movie showcases this very brilliantly. Of all things, I would describe the movie as being highly balanced. If we list out everything that happens – molestation and rape, consumption of drugs, gay relationships, physical abuse, bullying, the movie can overall feel very dramatic and non-relatable. The reality, however, is the opposite of that. And that is achieved by balancing the difficulties with strong character plots and moments of pure jubilance. Those moments with the trio of pure bliss. Of them dancing to “Come on Eileen” and running towards the sunset on graduation day and listening to “Heroes” on those drives. And even witnessing Charlie’s character come a full circle as he decides to stop hiding and start participating. In class as well as in his relationships. Another aspect of the movie that works in this case perfectly, is how each character is built to make the audience feel for them and relate to them and love them. This, above all else, is why we never judge the characters for doing things we know are wrong. Like consuming drugs. Because we are able to see them as people more complicated than just someone who smokes pot or attracts trouble. We see them work on themselves and learn from all their experiences. We see honesty in their characters and in their relationships, particularly between Charlie, Sam and Patrick. And we see the high regard they have for one another and for the positive impact they had on their lives.
As Charlie understands “We cannot choose where we come from. But we can choose where we go from there”, there is a very bittersweet moment of reflection, followed by one of the best movie endings for me as the trio finally find their tunnel song and go on their drive and Charlie says this in the background – There are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17. I know these will all be stories someday and our pictures will become old photographs and we’ll all become somebody’s mom and dad. But right now, these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here and I am looking at her and she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you are not a sad story. You are alive. And you stand up and you see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song on that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.
And that’s exactly how we feel as the credits start rolling. Infinite.