So it’s something of a shame that I missed out on The Perks of Being a Wallflower while it was in theaters. Considering that the majority of my social circle is involved in the film scene in one form or another, you would’ve thought that I would have caught this film far earlier. But shit happens and occasionally awesome movies get lost in the cracks, which is a shame; The Perks of Being A Wallflower is an absolutely beautiful movie.
The movie – based off the epistolary novel of the same name – follows Charlie , the eponymous wallflower, as he enters his freshman year of high-school. As the movie starts, Charlie is shy to the point of being nearly mute; he’s unpopular, socially awkward, a lover of books and a decidedly unconventional thinker. He has no friends, no direction and no confidence. School is a neverending parade of indignities, insults and the painful isolation of feeling alone in a crowd.
And yet over the course of a year, Charlie – with some help from his friends – grows and changes into a far more confident and self-assured young man. He may have been a wallflower when he started… but he’s far more at the end.
And if you’re the sort of person who can relate to Charlie’s situation, whether you’re in high-school, college or older, there’s a lot to learn from his growth.
Reach Out To Others
When the movie starts out, Charlie is deluged in a mix of emotions. On the one hand, starting his freshman year marks a blank slate – after all, nobody knows who he is, which means he’s in the position to redefine himself however he wants. Nobody has to know he’s “the damaged kid” or that he’s suffered from an unlabeled condition. At the same time however, he doesn’t have the social support he’d hoped for. The girl he’d been friends with in middle-school has become far more status-conscious and refuses to be seen with a “loser”, his sister sits at a “seniors only” table and his older brother’s friends pretend to not know who he is.
As a result: Charlie feels profoundly isolated, absolutely alone in the middle of a crowd. He’s afraid to stand out, even getting mocked for his mere presence in an advanced placement English course, bullied for being a brain and otherwise slapped around for daring to… well, just exist, really.
And yet during a football game, he makes the effort to reach out and connect with Patrick – a senior who doesn’t seem to give a flying fuck about the school’s social laws and is quite content to be himself without giving a damn about whatever anyone else thinks.
It’s a moment of emotional risk for Charlie – he’s deliberately making himself vulnerable to being rejected after all, and with the experiences he’s had with his fellow students it’s understandable that he might expect to be slapped down again – but it’s one that pays off. Not only is Patrick a genuinely cool person, but he makes a point of welcoming Charlie into his group… not to mention introducing Charlie to Sam.
Silence That Inner Censor
It’s clear from the moment we meet him that Charlie wants nothing more than to be a full participant in school life… but he’s incredibly hesitant to take part. He has that inner voice that tells him never to stand out, that nobody could possibly want to get to know him, that his presence is only going to be an unwelcome intrusion into an already existing social sphere.
This is never more obvious than at the first school dance; Charlie spends most of his time propping up the wall, watching other people have fun and wishing he could take part but not knowing how or feeling like he has the right to. Even after having made a connection with Patrick and Sam at the football game, Charlie feels hesitant to try to ask to be included in their fun. He has to push himself into making that first approach, as hesitant as a nervous kitten expecting to get shooed away. The look on his face when they reach out to embrace him into their circle says far more about his joy at being included than any dialog could manage.
The charm of Sam and Patrick is that they don’t care what other people think; they are very secure in their identities and their own self-worth; Charlie on the other hand is convinced that he has no worth and wishes more than anything that he could feel as free to express himself as they do.
It’s only when he gets stoned out of his gourd that he’s able to express himself freely – if ineloquently – at an after-party. A couple of magic brownies and suddenly that inner censor has shut up long enough for him to say what he’s really thinking without fear of judgement or self-censorship. He knows to a certain extent that he’s babbling nothing but bullshit but he doesn’t care. Freeing himself from the voice in his head that tells him to shut up, keep quiet and not try to make waves is one of the most liberating moments of his life. Even as his fellow party-goers are amusing themselves at his antics, Charlie feels the most himself that he has in… well, ever.
Now I don’t necessarily recommend weed as a way of shutting down that inner voice1, but learning how to control your own mind and learning to make your inner doubts and self-sabotage quiet down is an incredibly important part of becoming a more confident, secure individual.
Embrace Your Identity
It doesn’t take very long before Charlie has been inducted into a new group of friends – a motley crew of punks, film buffs, goths, music lovers, stoners, and writers… and he fits right in. They’re not the most popular kids in school – in fact, they’re rather emphatically the weirdos, rejects and freakazoids of the school – but they don’t care.
They’re quite happy to be off on their own on the Isle of Misfit (Yet Collectable) Toys2 and couldn’t give two shits about what the jocks and cheerleaders think of them. They’re too busy celebrating the things they love, self-publishing ‘zines, hitting foreign film festivals and shadow-casting the Rocky Horror Picture Show and living their lives as they see fit.
Small wonder why Charlie feels so comfortable with them; his friends (with a little help from his English teacher) have been teaching him to embrace his being a writer – down to giving him a snazzy suit so he looks the part. His friends encourage him to be his best self instead of trying to fit into the mold of the “cool” kids.
Do The Work
Side note here: while Patrick and Sam help Charlie to grow as a person, it’s worth noting that Charlie did not reach out to Patrick and Sam in hopes of finding someone to help him be cool or make him a better person. All Charlie was hoping for was someone he could talk to and maybe eat lunch with. Too many people – of all ages – think that what they need is the Manic Pixie Dream Team to drag them out of their humdrum lives and make everything better. These sorts of magical BFFs who swoop in to make you a better person without any effort on your part don’t exist and expecting others to make you better puts absurd amounts of pressure on them. While Sam and Patrick are decidedly free spirits and incredibly supportive of Charlie, Charlie’s growth comes from his own efforts. They don’t set out to reinvent Charlie or change him; his improvement is from his own experimentations and choices, making his own mistakes and having friends who believe in him and provide a hand as needed.
Finding friends who can support you and help you broaden your horizons, even who act as role models is worth the effort – but don’t make the mistake of looking for someone to do all of the heavy lifting for you.
It’s established early on that Sam’s widely viewed by much of the school as something of a slut – she was known for getting drunk at parties and sleeping around with guys. She may be in a monogamous relationship now (with a pretentious college douchebag… but that’s beside the point), but high-school thrives on labels and ensuring that you never live anything down ever. It’s one of the most maddening aspects of high-school: the feeling that once you’re given an identity, you can never get out from under it.
Part of what cements Charlie’s relationship with Sam is that he doesn’t care about her reputation. He doesn’t see her past promiscuity3 as a sign that if he holds out long enough (or gets her drunk enough) then she’ll give it up eventually or that it makes her any less of an awesome person.
“After all,” he says, “I wouldn’t want to be judged for what I used to be like.”
Equally important, however, is that he doesn’t treat Sam differently after she reveals that she had been sexually abused by her father’s boss. A lot of well-intentioned nerds would make a fuss – acting like a White Knight, treating her like she’s made of spun glass or that she’s irreparably damaged. Charlie does the right thing: he says “I understand” and lets it go. He gives her the respect of not assuming that she’s broken, that she needs his help to be whole or that she couldn’t possibly be over things. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t think any less of her and doesn’t press her; if she needs him, he’ll be there but he’s not going to force the issue.
This is an incredibly attractive trait in Charlie and in people in general – by not judging or presuming things about Sam for her past, he is showing that he sees her as who she is, rather than what society (high-school, in this case) says she “should” be seen.
Stand Up For Yourself
Charlie makes a classic mistake late in the game – he lets himself get bulldozed into a relationship that he doesn’t actually want to be in by Mary Elizabeth. While they’re friends, they aren’t compatible partners for a relationship – their values and personalities conflict far more than they mesh and it’s clear that Mary Elizabeth doesn’t have much respect for many of Charlie’s interests.
While he’s considerably more confident and secure in himself at this stage, he still has a hard time being assertive and making the hard decisions. In fact, he’s so conflict-averse that he half-jokingly wishes she’d die so that he wouldn’t have to go through the drama of breaking up with her. Naturally, this manges to turn around and bite him in the ass; instead of nipping things in the bud early – when there would be considerably less drama and hurt feelings, Charlie lets it play out, waiting for something else to do the hard work for him… and it nearly costing him his friends in the process.
It can be hard enough to stand up to someone you don’t like. Standing up to a friend can be even harder... and can be even more important.
In Charlie’s case, it can be hard to tell someone you ostensibly care about that you don’t want to date them – especially if they have a stronger or more dominant personality than you do – but the toll of letting the relationship continue is much worse. The longer you let it fester, the harder it will be to make a clean break of things.
Think of it like ripping off a bandage – better to brace against the short sharp pain than to endure long, drawn-out pull.
Speaking of the short, sharp pain…
Make Your Move
Charlie spends the better part of the year in love with Sam but unwilling to say anything – not for fear of “ruining” the friendship but out of a misguided sense of “I Want My Beloved To Be Happy”. Charlie embraces a philosophy that many nerds adopt, either consciously or unconsciously, of putting other people’s happiness before his own… if he addresses his own at all. In Charlie’s case it ties into a sense of deservedness; he subconsciously feels guilty for the death of his aunt and is punishing himself for his supposed involvement. At the same time however, the idea of putting other people’s happiness ahead of your on is a surprisingly selfish belief. It is often less a sense of selflessness and more of a cop-out; now you’re not afraid to say something and take the risks, you love someone so much that you’re suffering nobly so that they can benefit.
And it’s usually bullshit.
Ultimately this enshrining others’ happiness is a way of excusing yourself from having to take responsibility for your feelings while simultaneously making yourself a martyr to them. You may feel righteous, but the sacrifice isn’t about others… it’s about you.
Even if you aren’t harping about your sacrifice to others to let them know how much of a hero you are, it still affects your relationships with others. Ultimately, it’s another case of putting her on a pedestal and taking away her humanity rather than treating her as a person and acknowledging your own emotional investment. Sam even calls Charlie out on it – not only is Charlie cheating himself out of happiness in the name of bullshit nobility but he’s intrinsically saying that he knows what makes Sam happy better than she does. Charlie never stops to think that – even if she doesn’t love him the way that he hoped – she wouldn’t want him to neglect his own happiness; after all, she was his friend and cared about him deeply.
It’s not fair to her, it’s not fair to you and it’s a lousy excuse for not taking action… even if that action is to let go.
Not every crush is meant to be requited. Part of becoming who you are supposed to be means being able to handle the disappointment of knowing that someone may not love you the way you want them to… and being able to accept that that’s ok.
And sometimes… becoming confident enough and secure enough to make your move and take that risk means that your dreams can come true.