Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released in 1999, which means that if you are older than me you might never have heard of it, but if you were in high school at the time or younger, it probably changed your life. I’ve seen more text tattoos based on it than I can count. Ezra Miller, who plays Patrick in the film, described the book as “body armor… protection or salvation”. That sounds about right.
I finally read it in 2004. I was finishing grad school and working a summer temp job. I remember reading Perks on my lunch break, sitting in the plaza above International District station, and then returning to the reception desk of a incredibly quiet office, where I would write ridiculous stories on the internet & watch increasingly depressing coverage of the presidential election. It’s just that kind of book. You remember where you were.
The thing about the book is that you read it, and you think that no high school kid would ever react to events like Charlie does. No high school kid is that sensitive. The thing we realized when we saw the movie is that Stephen Chbosky — author, screenwriter, director — *is* Charlie. Charlie exists.
But let’s back up for a moment.
What you want to know is that the film is lovely. All of the key moments you remember from the book are there, and they are true, and they are magical. The biggest criticism I can offer is that the cast is a little too beautiful, by which I mean not just that the leads are, but even the parents — Dylan McDermott & Kate Walsh as Father & Mother. Nina Dobrev as Charlie’s sister. Melanie Lynskey as his adored, troubled aunt. And so on.
The structure is a little different, because it is a movie, duh, and so there are things that are revealed later in the book but earlier in the movie, and vice versa. So if you are an OMG NO CHANGES EVER person, too bad for you. You’re missing out, is what I am saying.
If you’re older than me, the main thing you should know about the novel is that it’s epistolary. Thus, it is inevitably very internal, characters aren’t fleshed out beyond what they are to Charlie, and he of course is an unreliable narrator. He’s writing the letters to an unknown recipient, and this carries over (lightly) into the film. That’s an easy thing to overdo with loads of voiceover, and Chbosky avoids that trap, which is commendable.
The story follows Charlie through his freshman year of high school. He’s had shit happen to him in the past, heavier shit than happens to most teens, but not heavier than all. Because the thing about teenagers is that they’re people, and terrible things happen to them, and even if you ban the books that talk about those things, this will not have the magical effect of making bad shit go away. It has the magical effect of preventing teens from having a language to talk about their own lives.
Um. Got on a little YA librarian kick there. Sorry. Back now.
So he’s trying, as he says in the book, to ‘participate’ despite all this shit. And the beautiful thing about Logan Lerman as Charlie is that you can see this whole thing, the effort of participation (and it *is* an effort, to be a part of this world) written across his face. You can see it when he considers where to sit in the lunchroom, strategizes in the stands at the football game, and silently talks himself into joining in at the dance.
He still has darkness in him, and sometimes you can see something about him or hear something in his voice that makes you wonder if JD would have turned out okay in the end if he had an English teacher who really challenged him & if he had met the right friends in the early days of his freshman year.
Because Charlie does have the right teacher and he does meet the right friends. He meets two seniors, Sam (Emma Watson, with a serviceable American accent) & Patrick (Miller, who steals every damn scene he’s in), who make the effort to welcome him into their circle because they see both his potential and his need. And, of course, more than a little bit of themselves.
It made me feel All of the Feelings, it made me miss going to RHPS, and it made me so damn glad I’m not in high school anymore.
So now back to Charlie and Stephen. So our screening, to our great surprise, was followed by a Q&A. I am not going to be able to do justice to this experience, but there was a story shared that I think you should know, so we’re just going to power through.
The Q&A started out a bit awkward. Chbosky said that he wasn’t usually like this, that Seattle was a special place for him, but you never know. I’ve attended the film festival for 16 years, and some directors just give bad Q&A, you know? But finally he started talking about Stewart Stern (which I found super exciting, because I am a total Stewart Stern fangirl: you can buy me a drink sometime & I will tell you all about it), and THEN. He told us Stern was in the house that night and asked him to come down & join him.
And I exploded a little inside.
They talked about a number of things, and I believe it was edited into a podcast, but here’s the important story: when Chbosky was 17, he chose the USC film program because Stern taught in it, but right at the start of the school year, Stern suffered a heart attack. While he was recovering, Chbosky sent him anonymous packages, full of things to charm & cheer (like, seriously, Winnie-the-Pooh books) & with (as Stern tells it) beautiful, inspiring letters.
Not wanting it to seem as if he was doing it to get ahead in the business, Chbosky sent it all under a pseudonym, and Stern was unable to find out who the packages were from. Stern had an open letter posted in response, and in this way they carried on a correspondence, anonymous on one side, for TWO YEARS. Incredibly mature, sensitive correspondence from a teenager. Sound familiar?
Then, well. You’ll have to hear Stern tell it some time, how he just knew when he saw him that the letters were from Chbosky, and how that was the start of a mentorship & friendship that lasts til this day. And if you don’t tear up even a little, you are made of tougher stuff than I am.
At the screening someone asked if when there would be the film or book of their relationship, and Chbosky said that for his side, this was it. Obviously. Charlie’s letters to someone who doesn’t know him (and who he doesn’t really know) plus the mentorship by his English teacher (Paul Rudd, by the way, which is great).
It’s an amazing tribute. And it’s out now. You should see it.