Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Stephen Chbosky

"Mary Elizabeth is a vegetarian, and she hates her parents. She is also fluent in Spanish."

SPOILER ALERT, "against the finite" is the finest fight a person can ever engage in.

A coming-of-age debut novel, set in the early Nineties, in a Pittsburgh suburb, written in the epistolary style, loosely based on the author's life? Hoo boy.

Charlie is beginning his freshman year at high school. He prefers to observe, rather than participate, as fascinated with the possibilities of people than their actualities. His popularity suffers accordingly. The only real friend Charlie committed suicide, which was probably still only the second-most devastating loss he'd endured in fourteen years. His beloved aunt Helen, his mother's sister, who always let him stay up and watch Saturday Night Live, perished in a car crash on Charlie's seventh birthday.

Hit the poor kid hard.

Charlie is content to play the wall, speak low and carry a few twigs in his jeans pockets, until his English teacher (a man known simply as "Bill") urges him to socialize. Which he does, in the bleachers at a high school football game. Taking a chance on Patrick (also known around school as "Nothing") proves a smart move, as not only he but also his step-sister Sam immediately take a liking to Charlie. The trio hit up a diner, then a party, where Charlie sheds his shell with the help of a pot brownie.

The "Musketeer" thing is just what Charlie needs. Attending parties, meeting people, inhaling and swallowing--and crushing on Sam. Early on, Charlie made his feelings known, but Sam let him down gently. (She did, however, deign to bestow upon Charlie his first-ever kiss.) And since Sam gets a boyfriend (that she's really into), and Charlie gets a girlfriend (that he's not really into), no harm done.

Except this is a book about teenagers, so that ain't possible.

Patrick has a tormented romance of his own, inasmuch as clandestinely banging another the school's star quarterback can be called a "romance." Charlie tries to be there for his new pals, but he can barely endure his own relationship. His girlfriend, the parent-hating hispanohablante, has a tendency to dominate conversations and dis Charlie's gifts. The cord must be cut, but of course Charlie needs the scissors handed to him.

One mess follows one mess, and soon his life is a barely-navigable path from one day to the next. Family issues take center stage, and school provides scant respite. He's back to seeing a damn-persistent psychiatrist. Brad and Patrick are no longer seeing one another, and Charlie decides to put his own needs aside and help his buddy through a tough time. (Charlie does that quite a bit.) He reconnects with Sam, and just in time; she'll be off to Penn State soon. She asks Charlie why he never acted on his feelings after she and her boyfriend broke up. Turns out, Sam's indignation is less about her and more about him.

Everyone wants Charlie to put himself first for once. To address his feelings, regardless of how frightening they may be. But when things get too intimate between he and Sam, he puts on the quick kibosh. He's "not ready."

The rope Charlie's been grasping since the beginning of the school year has finally snapped in half. He lands in the hospital, where a sensitive doc helps him untangle his subconscious, allowing him to come to terms with the real reason he's so haunted by memories of Aunt Helen.

Some stories get told over and over, and "high school struggles" will forever be one of those stories. Despite initial reservations, I can't deny The Perks of Being a Wallflower its contextually massive accomplishment; an utterly real, absorbing account of a mentally ill teenage boy.

Mental wellness, adulthood, and internal plumbing won't hinder the reading experience. Not everyone leaves their poisonous delusions in adolescence. Not everyone recognizes the true value of friendship. Friends share--ideas, stories, dreams, fears. Friends keep each other from being swallowed whole by the world.

Further, Charlie is one of the most likable teens in all of fiction. Stephen Chbosky is no J.D. Salinger, but wow goddamn I would knock Holden Caufield over just to hang out with Charlie. (Am I the only one finished reading Catcher in the Rye and thought the wrong kid died?) At book's end, he's well on his way to fixing what is broken inside of him, which is incredibly satisfying. It doesn't ensure a smooth remaining three years in high school, doesn't mean tragedy can't revisit his sphere, but it's honest and profound development of character.

Director-Stephen Chbosky
Writer-Stephen Chbosky

"We accept the love we think we deserve."

If you want it done right….

Whenever a film is released dealing with the ineluctable trials and tribulations of teenagers, reviewers of all stripes liken it to those John Hughes classic teen movies of the Eighties. And so it was with Perks of Being a Wallflower. But how many of those reviewers realized how close it came to being a John Hughes classic teen movie of the 21st century? When Mr. Mudd Productions (Juno, Ghost World) approached Chbosky about adapting his novel, the author bought the film rights back from the late director's family to create what is essentially a "greatest hits" edit. Certainly, as I lament (likely forever) the absence of "Burning Up" from The Immaculate Collection, I wish certain lines of dialogue or isolated incidents from the book could have been included.  But Chbosky knew his stuff--I mean, it's his stuff. Everything on screen is to the service of Charlie's story, with none of the digression that can make long fiction so damn engrossing.

Hughes-ian elements exist: a killer soundtrack, young love gone awry, messy-haired wise-asses. Perks never hits the comedic heights of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but it plumbs the depths of its protagonist more than Hughes did in any of his movies.

Hard to imagine the great master would have done the tunnel sequences the same way, though.

Ah yes, the tunnel sequences. The most visual (and metaphorical) part of the book. Charlie and his new best friends, packed into their pick-up truck, when the tunnel into downtown beckons. The radio is cranked. Sam climbs out onto the bed of the truck and stands, giving herself over to the macrorush while Charlie experiences the absence of borders. Then, almost a year later, the pick up is once more speeding through the tunnel, only this time, Charlie is the one on his feet, feeling the wind, feeling so alive that death is an impossibility, heading towards the light but not even caring to open his eyes.

So many people--be they paid for their opinion or not--cite this as the highlight of the film. And I won't disagree; I just think the "my girlfriend's kind of a pushy twat" montage set to "Pretend We're Dead" by L7 needs more love.

The success of Chbosky's debut film sent his debut novel--by then entering it's teens--onto the New York Times Bestseller List. Almost as impressively, his script armed a Writers Guild of America nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Buoyed by an abundance of heart and smarts, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a cool little teen movie.

And maybe that's all it should have been.

A character-driven narrative will always be tricky to translate. Revelations can be doled out in increments. "We accept the love we think we deserve" hurts much more than the movie lets on. I miss the domestic dynamics that drive the novel. There's an argument between Charlie's older siblings that Dave Meltzer gave four stars. But like Steve told Adam, "No way you can fit all that."

The Aunt Helen revelation is foreshadowed more heavily in the book. Again, we miss out on exactly how much his memories of her impact Charlie, but it's worth the loss.

If confusion is sex, and adolescence is confusion, then adolescence is sex, then why is The Perks of Being a Wallflower a PG-13 flick? Meaning rather than "What the fuck is wrong with you?" during a critical moment, we get "What the hell's wrong with you?" Which strips the scene of some potency, and denies me the sound of Emma Watson uttering the f-word.

Ah, the cast. None of them teen-aged, yet each up to their task. Logan Lerman comes equipped with pale skin and wary glances--nailed it, nerd. His Charlie is a tad funnier and bolder than the book Charlie, and much less prone to crying whenever anyone looks at him funny.

Emma Watson's pixie cut doesn't jibe with book Sam, but her kittenish charm does. After a shaky start, her American accent proves durable and non-distracting. (Extra credit for being such an outspoken fan of the novel.)

I didn't recognize much of Patrick in Ezra Miller's relentlessly smart-alecky portrayal. Or was Charlie just that unreliable a narrator?

Even better questions…can art teach empathy? Can apathy be learned, or unlearned? Dunno, dunno, just don't. I do know that hurt people hurt people, and I know that most people don't wear green well. The perks of being a wallflower vs. the hazards of being a one-way mirror: heightened sensitivity to what you feel and what you don't feel. The movie isn't as moody, but that doesn't indicate dishonesty--it just doesn't want to pummel the audience. Attractive actors, appealing locations, awesome tunes, movie time and the lifting is (relatively) easy.

Charlie's relationship with his English teacher is so much more satisfying in the novel, and Paul Rudd ain't a factor in why. There's a nice tidy vision of the kindly, wise authority figure that Chbosky leans on. Does the overall story suffer? No. But the teacher in the book--simply, "Bill"--is more than words, be they his or those of the great English-language authors. He brings Charlie into his world, however briefly, and thus plays an enormous role in his breakthrough.

The huge change is the "the tunnel song." In the book, it's Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The movie changes that to David Bowie's "Heroes." I'm a fan of the switch. Not just because "Heroes" is a superior song, it's a more directly visual one as well. "Landslide" is staring at a page until the words blur. Movies want to do the blurring for us.

The book is a heart-squeezing ride alongside a mental tornado. The movie is the video of that ride someone shot from the passenger seat.

Charlie's sister receives a mixtape and promptly hands it off to him. This happens in both book and film, but only in the former do we get, "He included many songs by the Smiths," a sentence which made me snort so hard I coughed.

Charlie, Sam and Patrick attend a party where the host hands out Milwaukee's Best. It doesn't seem to be an ironic gesture.

Initially, gay outcast Patrick being such a passionate fan of high school football might seem odd, even given the sport's popularity in Pennsylvania. Then we learn he's porking the QB.

Bill gives Charlie The Great Gatsby, followed by On the Road. Christ if that ain't the literary equivalent of one week in Paris followed by one week in Flint.

Bless everyone who hasn't had A Separate Peace ruined for them by The Simpsons.

How does Sam in the movie know the Smiths--love the Smiths--yet not know Bowie? Morrissey is basically Bowie for asexuals. Mr. Mudd Productions is 2-for-3 in female characters with inexplicable holes in their musical knowledge. (3-for-3 in Sonic Youth mentions, though!)

How different would high school have been for me had I been blessed with Charlie's gumption? I never attended any events at school, no dances, no games, never approached anyone and was approached only once, by a heavyset black girl.
    No idea of any part of her name. We shared no classes. One morning, at some time in the half hour between when the school doors opened and when the school day started, this girl walks in to my "homeroom" class. She may or may not have introduced herself; I remember telling her my name. She then asked me to follow her out into the hall. Bemused at the attention, wary of defiance, I did as told.
    Dozens of students were milling in the hall, talking, slamming locker doors. She guided me to a couple of her friends, including a stringbean with a high-top fade who regarded me as though I had stinkbugs crawling all over my face.
    "See?" she said, huge smile on her round face. "It doesn't hurt to get to know people."
    I never saw that girl before that day. I never saw her any day after.

To improve your writing, write. To improve your life, live. When Charlie gets overwhelmed, he tries his hand at a story. An attempt stymied after one sentence. Thankfully he doesn't give up so easily on himself.

Screw Uncle Billy. I wish someone would unearth a deleted scene of George and Harry beating him half-sensible as the population of Bedford Falls continues singing in the Bailey living room.

This is the Slits reggae reference!

Throw in a Peanuts ref, too, why not.

Maybe that was my problem in high school--no one ever got me stoned. "Hey fat girl, have a brownie." Way to drop the ball.

"To Charlie," indeed.

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