So I just saw this film, without knowing much about it except that it's about misfits and stars Ezra Miller and David Bowie's 'Heroes'. That was enough for me. And honestly, if that was all that was good about it, it would have been plenty. But man, does this film have more going for it than that. (Spoilers ahead.)
This isn't a perfect film. But what is? The best compliment I can give Perks is that it is complex enough that I'm willing to give it a bit of a pass on the places where it falls down. It has more than one gay character. It has two kisses between male characters; one of the kisses is between a straight character and a gay character, and the straight character doesn't freak out or question his sexuality or respond with violence or disgust or anger. It has a suicidal character who has more than one dimension. It has sexual abuse of a boy by a woman. It has complex family relationships, full of love and casual cruelty and support and abuse. It has friendships. Real, messy friendships. And real, messy sexuality.
And on top of all that, it has Ezra Miller as Dr. Frankenfurter. I actually squeaked in the cinema. That's two of my favourite turn-ons in one delicious parcel!
One of the things I didn't like as much is the treatment of women. Although there are some beautifully nuanced portrayals in this film (Emma Watson is really, really good) and a host of good female characters, some of the details were a bit frustrating. Sam, Emma Watson's character, suffers from standard girl trouble: she used to be a slutty slut. We don't get all the details, but basically she spent 'freshman year' not studying, getting drunk at parties, and sleeping around. She suffers from cripplingly low self esteem, which results in her dating people who "treat [her] like nothing". Charlie, our hero, is the only one who loves the real her, and we know that he'll treat her right. Charlie moons after her for the entire film, selflessly helps her with her studies, evil-eyes her boyfriend and complains to people that she isn't dating him, despite the fact that he's never asked her to. I call Nice Guy-ism.
Charlie's one-time girfriend, Mary-Elizabeth, has her own girl-problems. From being a snappy, bright, independent girl, she morphs into a jealous, possessive, nagging shrew the moment she starts dating Charlie - which happens after they've kissed once and Mary-Elizabeth announces that Charlie is her boyfriend. Their relationship ends when Charlie is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and unthinkingly kisses Sam instead of Mary-Elizabeth. Patrick, Sam's step brother, tells Charlie that it would be best if he just stayed away from the group for a while, since there is "history" between Sam and Mary-Elizabeth - history that apparently involves guys liking Sam better than Mary-Elizabeth. Charlie, who has realised that one reason that he is currently fairly stable is that he has a good group of friends, suffers a rapid decline when he takes Patrick's advice and returns to being a loner.
There are other factors involved, of course, in Charlie's breakdown, but one thing this careful chronology encourages is the belief that these silly girls and their silly jealousy have contributed to Charlie's deteriorating mental health. I'd say that Charlie brings it on himself, by callously kissing one girl in front of the girl he's dating, but Patrick makes it clear that Charlie must exile himself not because his behaviour was insensitive and wrong, but because the girls are going to be unnecessarily dramatic about it.
I really don't have the energy to detail all the sexist tropes this film utilises to talk about women. For something that's otherwise so progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, it's a real disappointment. But there are other problems too.
1) I counted one person of colour who spoke during the entire film. I didn't even see any non-white people in crowd shots.
2) Everyone is thin and beautiful - not unexpected in a teen film (or, sadly, any film), but still disappointing.
3) Everyone is incredibly rich. The kids buy each other suits and typewriters for Christmas, and have free run of enormous mansions where no parents are seen. Nobody has a job, or talks of getting one. You know how ridiculously rich they all are, because nobody mentions money. There isn't even a token poor character to throw the others into relief. It's as if nobody even notices how ludicrously privileged these kids are - not the writers, directors, actors or characters. It's bizarre.
4) The bulimia joke. Early on, Sam tells Charlie that she's not a bulimic, she's a bulimist. What does that mean? "It means she believes in bulimia." She loves bulimia! That might be acceptable if the film went on to explore Sam dealing with bulimia, but it doesn't. It's never mentioned again. It's just a throwaway line, perhaps to show how quirky and cool they are, perhaps to show how screwed up Sam is. I think that's pretty screwed up in itself.
It's disappointing that the film falls down in so many ways, because in so many other ways, it is groundbreaking. The main character has dealt with death and suicide and sexual abuse by his aunt. Can we talk about how rare that is? I'm not sure I can remember another instance - in a teen film, no less - of a woman sexually abusing a little boy. Charlie's parents are appalled and disgusted and heartbroken, but there is no question that they believe him. I think, for this alone, I can forgive this film a multitude of sins.
And, on top of all this, it's a really moving film. The themes are complex and emotional and frightening, but there are moments of pure joy in the film, and moments of pure love. It's messy and grim and optimistic and terrifying. I'm no film critic, but I really enjoyed it and I think it's got some really important things to say.
I still wanted it to be better, though. One of the problems of engaging regularly with this kind of criticism is that I've been infected by more-ism. The status quo is not enough. Better than the status quo is not enough. I want more. I expect more.