There is an endless supply of movies about being a teenager, stretching back at least to 1955, when Rebel Without a Cause dared to expose the real secret life of young adults. Since there is also an endless supply of teenagers, there's always an audience willing to watch them, and each generation finds their own favorites. Being a teenager is pretty universal across time (and many cultures), so these films all tend to tell the same stories. That's how it works.
However, once in a great while, one of these "teen movies" says something so true about humanity that it transcends its particular genre and becomes a true Classic, a touchstone for every generation. Rebel Without a Cause is one, of course, as well as The Breakfast Club. Perhaps Grease and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Superbad could make the list. But it's been a long time since a movie has captured the complexity of getting through high school with such grace, humor, subversiveness, and honesty as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, from his own novel.
The movie is very quotable, so I'll use some of the things the characters say to illustrate ways in which this movie is more than "just another teen movie."
"I'm both happy and sad. And I'm still trying to figure out how that can be."
Logan Lerman shines in the role of Charlie. He has one of the most expressive faces, and was the perfect choice to play the awkward kid with a mysterious backstory that is slowly revealed through the movie. From the way he stands up at football games just a half-second after the rest of the crowd, or walking to his friends at a school dance, trying to time his steps with the music, this kid has no game at all. Lerman is able to pull this off without making you pity him. You understand him.
"Either you call me Patrick, or you call me nothing."
Ezra Miller is one of my most favorite young actors, and he really nails his role of Patrick here. He's that kid that you pretty much know is gay, but he never comes right out and admits it, unless he has a reason. Even though he's not the main character, Patrick probably develops the most through the course of movie. He symbolizes the very real, very heartbreaking, events that many gay teens go through.
"Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys."
Another thing that the movie gets right is that being uncool as a freshman is not the same thing as being uncool as a senior. Patrick and Sam (played excellently by Emma Watson) are outcasts, but exist on a different level of the high school heirarchy than Charlie. Freshmen outcasts are actively bullied, while senior outcasts are largely ignored, unless they somehow threaten the status-quo that has been established in their graduating class.
For people like Charlie, the best he can hope for is to reach the level of Patrick and Sam. He'll never be popular or cool; it's enough to just be left alone. With maybe one friend.
"Whatever happened to Fay Wray?"
Like Charlie, I was in high school when I was first taken to a real showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And like Charlie (and thousands of other misfit kids), it opened my eyes to other ways of being, and served to loosen some pressure that I couldn't define and didn't know I had in me.
It was gutsy of Chbosky to include the Rocky Horror events in this movie. Many many many parents would not approve of their kid participating in such activities. Chbosky also runs the risk of alienating part of his audience; anyone that has not been to a Rocky Horror performance (no, watching it at home doesn't count), may not fully appreciate what's happening inside Charlie.
"You see things. You understand. You're a wallflower."
This statement, that Patrick says to Charlie during the party, is the beating heart of the movie. Patrick means something specific when he makes that statement, but it has other meanings for Charlie - and eventually for us. Interestingly, this scene occurs not too long after another conversation where a minor character talks about having converted to Buddhism. It may bring other connections to the viewer about ideas of seeing and understanding.
The statement is also an instruction to us, the audience. We are being asked to see and understand what's going on in the movie. When I watched it the second time, I was shocked at how much the movie hints at, or even gives away, before the subjects "officially" come up.
"It's gonna be our little secret."
If being a wallflower is the heart of this movie, secrets are the bones. Just about every kid that influences the main plotlines have secrets. Sometimes they keep secrets from their parents. Sometimes they keep secrets from each other. And sometimes, they keep secrets from themselves. It's the unraveling of the secrets that provide the freedom and the pain that everybody experiences.
"We accept the love we think we deserve."
Amazingly, this movie is able to focus on love while not focusing on romance. There are no melodramatic episodes of stolen boyfriends or cheating girlfriends. There is, however, a honest examination of why we pick the people that we "fall in love" with.
"Why can't you save anybody?"
There's a symmetry in the movie, shown both in big ways, and in small. One that comes up in similar, but different, contexts, is the sad recognition that sometimes you can see the horrible things people are doing to themselves - or to others - but you can't stop them. There's a pain in the world that won't go away. You can only try not to stay a sad story forever.
"I feel infinite."
It's a rare movie that makes me feel the conflicted, darkly beautiful experience of being in high school, but this one does it for me. The clash of emotions. The new realizations of the world. The things that should fit together, but don't. The things that shouldn't fit together, but do. Coming to terms with who you are. This movie nails it for me.
There are other secrets, other messages, that the movie contains besides the ones I mentioned here. But I will remain quiet about those.
You need to see for yourself. You need to understand. You need to be a wallflower.