Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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.


  1. Interesting review, I'll probably watch this, no surprise about the misogyny realy, it's a rarity to find a film free of it.

  2. I think it would be worth it for you to read the book that the movie's based on. It develops the female characters a lot better, and the "Nice-Guy" trope seems to be something the movie directors put in just so there would be something familiar for the casual moviegoer. In the book at least, Charlie doesn't act once like Sam owes him sex; he wants her to be happy and doesn't think she wants to be with him, so he doesn't rock the boat. Sam gives him a lecture at the end of the book about how he should have asked her out or made a move, because sitting there and putting everybody's lives ahead of yours doesn't count as love.
    There's also a whole lot of the story with his sister that gets left out of the movie unnecessarily.
    The main difference is that with the book, you get to see more of how Charlie thinks, and in my opinion, he's absolutely adorable. So maybe I'm biased. :P
    It also has no passing endorsements of bulimia, which is always a plus.
    Overall I really liked the movie despite its shortcomings. Unfortunately it's no surprise that Hollywood is unkind to women. :-/

    1. Yeah I think we're on the same page here. To be fair, I did think Charlie was adorable; his behaviour towards women was no worse than we would expect from the 'outsider' in a teen movie, and a lot better than some representations. I'd just have liked it to be better than that :-p

      I think I will read the book, actually, particularly if there's more of the sister. I meant to mention her in the review but forgot, because I felt there was a lot of potential there. She seemed to start off as the ubiquitous older sister (conventionally attractive, popular, scornful, a bit mean), but then mellow into an actual character with a tiny bit of a storyline, and the relationship between her and Charlie I felt has some lovely touches - she clearly loves him and is protective of him. Did you see Paranorman? There are similar brother/sister things going on there, but not as well done.

  3. Please do read the book! I think the movie did fair justice to it (likely due to the fact that the author was also the director), but there are always things you can't get in a movie that come out in the book. As a teen, it was an incredibly powerful book for me, and I still love every bit of it and think it's something that more people should read if they haven't, as it deals with a lot of issues that no one else ever seems to talk about.

    I'm very happy to see that your critique hits all the major points I was concerned about when I saw the film. I'll definitely be sharing. :)

  4. The movie is loyal to the book in events, but with a completely different feel.
    I agree with your criticism of the bulimia line, the lack of people of color, and how the characters are all thin and rich, but I didn't find the movie specially sexist, but not woman-empowering. It's not groundbreaking in this area, but it's okay. I'm used to worse.
    The book has an abortion in it, though. If talking openly about abortion is not woman-empowering, I don't know what is. They cut this out of the movie, obviously, but I don't hold it against them. It would upset the Perks' box office if the pro-life audience refused to watch (or let their kids watch) it.
    What ruined the experience for me is their throwing in typical teen movie elements so the audience could relate, e.g. Logan Lerman's acting. When Mary Elisabeth or Sam are talking, he looks a little distracted/disinterested. Logan's got that typical smug, almost bored look (and smirk) that's great to teen movies in general, but only the "light" ones. I hope you know what I mean. It doesn't match the heavy themes of Perks, nor the sensitive Charlie in the book. :/

  5. Regarding your comment about how everyone is rich, the suit that Patrick bought Charlie was from the thrift store and towards the end when Charlie is in the hospital, he tells the doctor that he has to leave because his father can't afford it. I don't think anyone in this movie is particularly rich.

  6. honestly get the hell over it! good movie and didnt read the book but you know what it moved me to tears and its the teen movie that anyone can relate to because they cover different problems, just like the breakfast club did, its a way better movie than those crappy movies where its all about getting high and being cool blah blah blah stupid movie like spring breakers? at least this movie had actual meaning.

  7. Re: Everyone is thin and beautiful -
    Certainly not. The girl with braces calling Charlie a faggot in the 1st English lesson is no beauty. Another girl, receiving the comment "terrible stain" from the workshop teacher, is neither beautiful nor thin.

    1. So a nasty character breaks the mould, and a "dumb" character does also?
      Come on, that's really no better. You've used two bad characters and made them look normal.

    2. Ummm.... Hello? Who is the judge of 'beauty' in the first place?
      And I'm definitely not saying that the character playing Mary Elizabeth is fat, because she isn't, but she definitely isn't skinny either!
      I'm not meaning to be rude by this comment, it's purely critisism. I'm definitely not a stick. But come on!!!! It's wrong to put 'thin and beautiful' as a negative attribute to a brilliant movie!!!
      We're all beautiful in our own ways, despite what we look like. Wasn't that something the movie was supposed to teach us? Yeah, Sam (Emma) is beautiful on the out side, but that's all everyone, except Charlie, saw. Charlie taught us that you have to look beyond the outside and look at the beauty that people possess on the inside too.

    3. this is so true i am on the same page with you here! i think everyone in the movie was neither perfect or ugly they were all uniqe! im not saying non of them are beautiful because lots of them were but who is the judge of beauty?

  8. This is a wonderful review. I actually googled "Bulimist The Perks /../" during the movie (saw it on my computer) cause I thought it was unbelievably inappropriate, and your blog came up. I also find it absurd how white and beautiful, in the "norm" kinda way, everyone is. Thank you!!

  9. I really did enjoy reading your review, but say in the book, if it makes no difference to the story if one of the lesser characters were african american or of any other different cultured background, but the author points out that a black kid walked past and said something rude to the main character, you would probably be complaining about how it was unnecessary to have the bully be described as black...

  10. Well it was suburban Pittsburgh in the late 90's.I think they didn't just wanna just add people of colour to make it multicultural, because then it wouldn't be an accurate representation.The fact that there are few, just further amplifies the differences, i mean if everyone is the same when you're different you're different

  11. I find it horrible that you are looking down on the movie for not having different races. I am going to assume you are terribly racist towards caucasians because they did a great job but you don't seem to care about anything other than their skin color, which isn't the point. It's a shame really. I am watching the movie right now and adore it. It also helps if you read the book. This movie isn't supposed to be perfect. It's a messed up story about messed up kids. And it does a great job of showing a lot of the things teens see and go through. I do agree with you on some points though, and thanks for sharing your opinion.

  12. To be honest I didn't even notice the race thing nor did I see any of them as all thin and beautiful. Don't get me wrong I don't find the leads unattractive, but look like high schoolers. Not models, not anything super special (except Ezra and Emma). Maybe I was too in to the movie that I didn't care idk, and I'm not white. I enjoyed reading your review though and hearing your opinion because I was thrown by the bulimic comment myself.

  13. With what a few other people have said, it's crucial to have also read the book, especially in this instance, because it does talk about money problems with Charlie's family. It mentions that Charlie's brother, Chris (not named in the book), was only in college due to a football scholarship.
    Their parents weren't planning on Candace (also not named in the book) getting a scholarship, so they were investing all their money on her, in the hopeful knowledge that Charlie would get a scholarship, because they would only just be able to afford to send his sister.
    Also, in the movie when Charlie is in hospital and the doctor comes into the room for the 'first' time, he asks her if he can leave because he knows his father can't afford it. On that note he also has quite a look of surprise on his face when his father hands him $20 more than what he asked for, which I believe his father did only because he believed Charlie was improving socially and didn't want to diminish any hard work. Of course that last statement is purely opinionated, but it seems like a valid argument. :P

  14. Also, Charlie mentions how Alice is rich (but steals jeans from the mall anyways) so the parties are always at her house. Think about it, all the party scenes are at the same house, a giant mansion actually, with a ton of booze and drugs. Sounds like the parenting style of the rich. The other characters are still well off, but all of the extravagance that you see can be linked to Alice.

  15. i thought the movie was great it had lots of meaning and i think anyone could relate to it. none of them were exactly perfect but who is? they were all beautiful though in some way or form who is the judge of beauty? everyone is beautiful in some way and no-one is ugly. this film tought me so much and i am so glad i watched it.

  16. Okay I sorta disagree with your review first of all not all of them are rich, they could just live in nice houses, second Sam isn't a 'slutty slut' just a 'slut' third not all of them are thin and beautiful, I don't mean to be rude or anything but it seems like you don't get the meaning of this film. This is about a teen trying to turn things around in his first year of high school. And it was a very nice film with a sad past about Charlie. I've read the book and saw the movie and it only lacked a few things which is

  17. (Go to my last comment) which was the brother and sister bond. So I kinda think you judged this movie wrong.