what “Perks of Being a Wallflower” gets wrong

It’s the holiday season (well, okay, it’s coming to an end, but hey, it’s only January 3!), it’s winter, and it’s freezing outside – so this is movie season for many Americans, myself included. Over the past few weeks I’ve taken in my share of flicks, including the well-acclaimed 2012 release The Perks of Being a Wallflower starring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller.

My boyfriend and I saw this movie at a local cheap theater because my friends gave it rave reviews. Overall this movie has garnered generally outstanding reviews (85% approval on Rottentomatoes.com), so we considered it a safe bet.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I left the theater disappointed, less than dazzled, and heartbroken that this kind of movie is inspiring teenagers across the country.

At moments the story was touching, funny, and even deadly accurate in its portrayal of high school. The theme of friendship is important. I loved how Charlie’s friends banded together in support of each other through hard, painful times. I related to Charlie’s trouble to put himself out there in the high school social scene – I am an introvert too. It killed me to watch Charlie eat lunch alone. That’s why it overjoyed me (and probably everybody who viewed the film) when he summoned up the courage to reach out to spitfire Sam and silly Patrick.

(Also, I loved the touching scene when Charlie’s new friends gave him a spiffy suit so he’d look like the writer he dreamed of being.)

But the story went downhill from there.

I’m NOT troubled by the movie’s message that we all deserve love. This is a movie about supporting and loving your friends. Yes, we 100% need to stick by our friends and love them through hard times, bullying, confusion, and pain. Our world is full of evil and life is full of trouble, especially in those super-important high school years when you’re discovering yourself and trying to discover, who do I want to be? What is my purpose in life? I 100% agree that in order to survive this turbulent life, we need friendship, hope for the future and fulfillment in the present.

But I disagree with the movie’s portrayal of finding this friendship, hope, and fulfillment. The movie occurs mostly at raucous high school parties, and I’m sick of seeing this option presented in movie after movie as an option worth exploring for teenagers. Media and our culture makes partying and playing around with alcohol, drugs, and sex glamorous, but it’s an empty pastime. It has never brought anyone fulfillment and it never will.

Let’s be real – it’s good for art to portray life as it really is. And these are the dark realities of high school – the temptation to lose consciousness in the present and experiment with other mediums of pleasure. Kids know the dangers. They see this wild high school lifestyle in movie after movie.

I really think whether he intends to or not, writer Stephen Chbosky is advertising a wild lifestyle to teenagers, one with no qualms about its morality. Does he show the real, gritty consequences of playing around with alcohol, drugs, questionable drag shows, and sex? No. Not at all. They are actually his characters’ pathways to discovery about self and self-fulfillment. Charlie experiences liberation and excitement having taken part in this “adult world” with his friends by his side.

And there’s my main issue with the movie – friendship united by the bonds of exploring anything and everything that can bring pleasure, without any consideration of a bigger picture beyond your own sexual, sensual self-fulfillment. Ultimately this movie is saying pursue whatever makes you happy. Which is exactly the message of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in which Emma Watson’s character prances around the stage in her underwear, in one scene, and in a glittery outfit with characters in drag in another. In a scene that’s somehow supposed to be triumphant for Charlie, Charlie becomes the star performer in this sexually daring, provocative show.

And I’m supposed to cheer for Charlie’s sudden transformation, for his bravery, supposed to say “Good for you, Charlie, you stepped out of your comfort zone and participated in a sexually explicit show with absolutely no artistic or moral value whatsoever”??!

The Big Fat Lie that this movie promotes is that you can find happiness and contentment through all this free exploration. When will we realize that moral freedom never brings the happiness it promises?

What I did appreciate about “Perks” is its deep emphasis of relationships and friendship. Chbosky is on the right path. He’s just not traveling towards the right answer. Exploring the limits of our moral freedom will not bring us happiness. Contrary to the film’s portrayal of Charlie and his friends, who all seem okay at the end of the film, all this exploration does is leave us empty on the inside and searching for more. More drink to numb us to the pain of life. More sex outside of a committed marriage relationship with partners who have made us no lifelong promises, sex to bring us temporary joy.

None of this brings true peace and joy.

But when we submit our wills and our lives to our Creator, when we recognize that there is a person who can fill our hearts with all the love, joy, peace, and lasting fulfillment there is, and when we recognize all he asks is our faith and commitment to him, it’s surprisingly easy. It’s not about religion. It’s not about rule-following or giving up alcohol or fun. It’s not even about being “good enough” to deserve it, because we can’t.

It’s about a life-giving, abundant relationship with Jesus Christ, who showers us in grace even though we make mistakes over and over again. Jesus loves us and wants to set us free from the destruction we cause in our own lives when we sin, and sin again, and sin again. He died to erase our sins and take away our guilt – and give us something worthwhile to live for. Which is his glory.

Not just sex, drinking, confused relationships, and unhappy searching for something more.

Hollywood just doesn’t want to admit it.

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6 thoughts on “what “Perks of Being a Wallflower” gets wrong

  1. I would first like to commend you for posting a different, well-crafted viewpoint of this highly praised film. It is always important to have some compare and contrast on a film as culturally significant as this. As I’m sure you know, the movie is adapted from the highly popular book written in the 1990’s. The writer, Chbosky, wrote the screenplay and directed the film himself. While I completely understand and appreciate your viewpoint, I have to highly disagree. Whatever you believe in, the sad truth is that these vices (sex, drugs, alcohol) are EXACTLY what teenagers use for self-exploration, and, in turn, happiness and understanding. Is it the moral thing to do? Of course not. But it’s the truth, and that is what makes both the novel and the film so riveting. Chbosky does not gloss over any detail of the gritty life of a teenager. They do drugs, they have sex outside of relationships, and they certainly attend parties with alcohol. Are there exceptions to this? Of course. There always are. But I disagree that these characters are unhappily searching for something more. By engaging in these acts they are searching for themselves. It can be argued for eternity whether or not this is the moral, correct way to do such a thing, but it is the truth.

    Through these acts teenagers can find a sense of happiness, and more importantly a sense of who they are. This exploration is the only way to find out what they want and who they wish to be around. As a teenager myself I connected immediately to all the characters and the raw portrayal of the life of a high school student. Moral freedom can bring the happiness it promises, but only if used in the correct way. Those truly insightful teenagers, such as Charlie, see it as an opportunity not only to achieve happiness for a moment, but as tool to discover who they are. Without being exposed to all of these things, humans have no ground to build themselves upon. The moment when Charlie becomes the star performer is not just about him stepping out of his comfort zone. It is one of the first times he feels alive. It is one of the first times he realizes what he can achieve when he pushes fear aside. Even if it’s not the path he wants to follow, he at least now knows what his life can be like. There is value in every “unmoral” act a teenager takes part in, but only if they look hard enough.

    Lovely blog with excellent writing. Keep up the great work!

  2. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Jonathan. I so appreciate feedback! This is my first movie review, and sort of out of the norm content-wise for me.

    I agree with you in your observation that teenagers do explore the world through engaging in all these typical “vices” like you said, seeking better understanding of themselves. My critical reaction to the film stems from the film’s message that these “vices” will not only help us understand ourselves, but bring us to life, as you have said it does for Charlie. In the movie, Charlie does seem to come alive and push fear aside, like you pointed out.

    I’m afraid the film gives credit to this route of self-discovery that is false and deceptive, and that ultimately nothing immoral can ever be life-giving. I do believe there’s value in mistakes, and we are always learning from mistakes to grow as people, to make better decisions next time. But the film wants us to believe that all this moral exploration is enough to give us that purpose and life we crave. As a Christian (and I’m operating from that specific worldview, so it may be hard to find middle ground with anyone who doesn’t share it), I believe all our hearts’ longing for identity and purpose, for understanding ourselves, can be found in understanding our identity as beloved children of God and by accepting his gracious forgiveness for our mistakes. Christ promises to give abundant life, and in my own experience, I’ve never found lasting satisfaction or happiness in any of my own sinful acts. Only temporary. Then comes the guilt (which Jesus washes away, and that forgiveness transforms me and then with his help I live a life seeking to please him). While the movie would say Charlie’s exploration is a beautiful thing that gives him a powerful sense of adventure and life, I would say it’s ignoring the hollowness of this kind of exploration, and that whatever it leads him to doesn’t promise much, even as Charlie is exhilarated by whatever potential he now sees in a life unrestrained.

    As a society we all disagree on what’s “moral” and what’s “immoral” which makes it even harder to discuss the movie’s standpoint depending on what your basis for morality is. Whatever you think about life, we all have a sense that certain things are horribly wrong (rape, child molestation, murder, the carnage of war) and that this world isn’t as it should be. But without a basis for morality, then you can’t argue that any of these things are even wrong. I see Charlie’s exploration as taking him down self-destructive paths because I believe much of it is immoral (which doesn’t mean there’s no redemption, because Christianity redeems every sinful act!). And sin, to a Christian, can never give life or fulfillment because of its very nature – it destroys, it deceives, and it leads us into dark places. The movie does show some of the effects of sin (the bullying, the hurt and pain it causes some of the characters, how Charlie’s aunt’s molestation of him as a child affects him). But it ignores the pain your own sin will cause even when you think it won’t hurt you.

    Thanks so much for generating conversation! I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope you’re not scared of ever reading my blog again 🙂

  3. Brooke,

    You should read the book. I came away from the movie awestruck. Everything seemed very real and true to life. I kept thinking about the movies for days and how, even though I never took and drugs or drank more than a couple times or had sex in high school, I connected so much with the story. I think he uses these “vices” as Jonathan puts them as a way for Charlie (and his friends) to find himself. I think this becomes much more evident in the book as well.

    I actually got the book for Christmas (because I asked for it) and finished it in a handful of hours – it’s only 200 pages long. While the movie and the book are VERY similar, because the same guy wrote them both, there are definite differences between the two. Sex, at least as it pertains to Charlie, is a much less evident thing in the book. Sure, he talks about it and it does happen but not to the extent that it does in the movie. I’m assuming more was added to the movie because, let’s face it, sex sells and if you are writing a movie you want people to see it. And as far as Charlie, Sam and Patrick go, sex has nothing to do with the three of them becoming friends or forging a tremendous bond. Sam and Charlie (and incidentally Patrick and Charlie in the book) kiss a couple times but they never do anything more. I don’t remember in the movie if Sam and Charlie do it or not but they never do in the book; he gets freaked out by her touching her because it brings back his aunt molesting him, blah blah.

    On the flip side, I noticed more alcohol and drugs in the book. Charlie becomes somewhat of an alcoholic at one point in the book and the three of them definitely use drugs and alcohol as “vices” to strengthen their friendship. BUT, there are many other times in the book that they are together, strengthening their friendship, when no drugs or alcohol are present. Now, I used to think in High School that if you had to get high or drunk with your friends to have fun with them then they aren’t really good friends now are they? Well, I still think that but I don’t think it’s that simple in this case. I think they use it to discover themselves and in that process become friends. It’s a very strong bond to break; the people that were are when you were learning who you are, failing, succeeding, crying, laughing. So although they were using drugs and alcohol as somewhat of a “vice” or “crutch” or lubricant” I still think they were becoming themselves and becoming friends nonetheless.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense reading back on it but I still love the movie and love the book even more. I understand where you are coming from with your Christian worldview. I don’t think it’s as bleek as you see it though.

    • James! Thanks for reading, and for commenting (do you feel like we’re still in English 213?!)

      Thanks for pointing out that the book and movie have some key differences, and for giving your own book review of sorts. It’s definitely an emotional, powerful, intense movie crowded with teenage issues. And I’m with you in the opinion that deep friendships form from those experiences that come at critical moments in our lives. I may have to give the book a read since it sounds like the movie’s content was a bit more sexualized than the book’s.

      I understand that friendships form in a variety of environments in life, even in the maybe messier moments of our lives, and nobody ever has it all together. I do love that Sam, Charlie, and Patrick support each other and bond studying, at restaurants, over Secret Santa gifts, at the school dance. They truly serve each other and love each other for who they are. This is the inspirational part of the movie.

      I’m just disappointed by Hollywood’s continual message to us that true happiness is available – without any need for God – in the moment if we just grab life by the horns and live it up. Which maybe was a message that came through more strongly in the movie than in the book. My concern is that kids are watching and taking note of every answer they get about life, whether it’s from movies, music, or books. Entertainment is so influential – and I’m concerned that Hollywood doesn’t show life as it actually is, but life as we wish it to be: free of the guilt associated with all these things, and blissfully free of God’s involvement. I know Hollywood’s not apt to change, but we can at least react and discern whether these messages are true or not.

  4. You have written a thoughtful review, Brooke, and–even more laudable–you have maintained a civil discussion with your commenters. I say keep it up! I think you’re right that when “exploration” ventures into “vice” it is never good. It is true that even Christians have differing definitions of “vice,” but everyone has a conscience, no matter how different from one’s own. You are right to look for the common ground from which to challenge your readership. (I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds to me as if crossing the line into “vice”–by the characters’ own definitions, not just yours–is part of the bonding process. I’m with you that such bonds are never the best kind to form at any age.)

    • Yes! Intelligent discussion; I like it. I understand where both Brooke and Claire are coming from. I don’t remember every single part of the book but I don’t recall any mention of God or Jesus or Church other than as a passing glance. Charlie certainly doesn’t seem to be the religious type, that’s for sure. Neither do Sam nor Patrick. Pure speculation here but perhaps the author was trying to say you CAN form strong, meaningful bonds without God. OR, maybe he isn’t a religious person and didn’t even think to include it in any significant manner in the book.

      I think the movie displays their friendships being formed around “vices” more than the book does. Charlie doesn’t understand it until the end when Sam asks him why he continued to let Patrick kiss him when he dropped Charlie off. Charlie said it was because he was being a good friend – letting Patrick do whatever he wanted and Charlie would go along with it (whether that was drugs, alcohol, sexual encounters). I don’t remember how it’s worded but Sam countered with a beautiful response about how it’s not about physically being there for somebody, it’s about being yourself. I think the point was to say that just going to parties or doing drugs or having sex or whatever with your friends doesn’t make you (or them for that matter) a good friend. What makes you a good friend is to be your true self around those you love because they will gain more from that than they ever will from you just being there.

      At first Charlie enjoys the Rocky Horror shows because his friends are in them and he enjoys seeing them perform. Patrick quits the show at some point later on in the book and, as in the movie, Charlie gets to perform. By the end of the book though it’s not about Charlie going to the show solely for the purpose of seeing his friends. Instead, he is going because HE enjoys it. He even invites his sister and her boyfriend to come – neither of which know Sam or Patrick in any significant capacity – because he thinks they will enjoy it.

      He realizes that it’s “OK to be different” which was something he struggled with throughout most of the book. He knew he was different than most of the people he knew but he was never quite OK with it. The Rocky Horror show was one of the things that showed him this. Yes, it is a sexually charged show but I don’t think that’s why Charlie enjoys it. At first he gets pleasure from seeing Sam parade around in her underwear but by the end he goes because it not only makes him happy to watch, but happy to see his friends Sam and Patrick happy. And I wouldn’t consider their participation in the Rocky Horror show a “vice” really. Plenty of people perform because they love doing it. They just happen to be performing in a more risque show than normal but it’s because they love it; they feel liberated from the sameness of every day, going to school, doing homework, etc.

      It’s easy to see that Charlie, Sam and Patrick lean on either drugs or alcohol a bit too much (or at least more than I did when I was a teenager). However, I think there are many, many other parts of both the book and movie where they are forming strong bonds that have nothing to do with “vices” or “crutches”

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