Teenage Kicks

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2012 as well as one of the most popular with audiences.  It is a film that is unique for having been written and directed by the author of the novel on which the film is based; Stephen Chbosky.  And yet, it is not a very unique film that surprisingly negates any literary techniques in its conceptual execution, vying instead to adapt a mainstream approach to its material that prefers the superficiality of sentiment as opposed to the actuality of naturalism.

Charlie & Sam enacting the typical teenage romance.

Charlie & Sam enacting the typical teenage romance.

“Coming of age” films dealing with adolescence, and more specifically with High School, like Perks Of Being A Wallflower, tend to fall into two camps of sentimentality with only a very few exceptions.  Films such as John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink (1986) and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) trade on the audience’s nostalgia for its own youth.  Offering a highly stylized recreation of adolescence that is void of any confrontational or subversive material, naively presenting adolescence as a simpler time when everything seemed to be better and anything was possible.   The second kind of sentimentality is reactionary to the first, inverting the stylistic mechanisms of Hughes and Crowe to create a sweetly satirical kind of narrative.  These films, such as O.C. & Stiggs(Altman, 1985), Heathers (Lehmann, 1988), Pump Up The Volume (Moyle, 1990) and Mean Girls (Waters, 2004), follow the same narrative structure provided by films like Pretty In Pink while simultaneously resenting the conventions of the genre.

The dangers of sentimental filmmaking is the potential to gloss over elements that could potentially stimulate the audience intellectually outside of its comfort zone or simply become so cliché that the film has to trade on easy signifiers to keep the audience engaged.  These possibilities are the most reticent in the kind of sentimental filmmaking of Hughes, to which I believe The Perks Of Being A Wall Flower belongs.  Though where John Hughes has a certain longevity for having made these kinds of films first, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower cannot afford the same luxury.

If one examines the filmic elements of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower’s construction it soon becomes evident that it is a rudimentary exercise in genre filmmaking that manages only to be effective by trading on convention.    Consider the point of view shot where Charlie (Logan Lerman) first sets eyes on his romantic interest Sam (Emma Watson).  Sam appears in close-up and backlit, so that the light catches her hair and creates a symbolic halo around her head.  This is an image that harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s work with Lillian Gish and has become such an integral part of the langue of filmic signifiers that its potential for varied interpretations is almost exhausted, though it is immediately clear that as an audience we are meant to immediately recognize the romantic and sexual tension that will define Charlie’s relationship with Sam throughout the film.

Similarly, Chbosky’s approach to Charlie’s sexual molestation as a child is wrought with signifiers that are painfully familiar to its audience.  The incantation of the line “this will be our little secret” in almost every flashback to Charlie’s Aunt is pervasive in its blatant innuendo.  This way, when Charlie reveals, though not explicitly, what has occurred in one of his many voice-overs the film need not visually reveal the pedophilia.  Chbosky’s employment of such a tactic does two important things within the film.  First, it gives the film credibility as something serious and “real”.  While at the same time denying any forthright confrontation with the audience so that the films light tragic-comic tone and style may be preserved along with a PG-13 rating and a target audience.  A more subversive film, like Submarine (Ayoade, 2011) or Ghost World (Zwigoff, 2001), would not have dealt with such subject matter ambiguously.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

But perhaps the most obvious pitfall of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower’s filmic short hand is its use of soundtrack music.  It is obvious that Chbosky, like so many other filmmakers of this genre, looks to Cameron Crowe’s films as a blueprint on how to derive powerful emotional cues from popular music.  This device enables a film to imbue a scene with a lackluster performance or scripting with the emotional potency of an easily recognizable pop song.   The Perks Of Being A Wallflower utilizes this device constantly, much in the way Juno (Reitman, 2007) did, punctuating scenes with the likes of The Smiths, Nick Drake and Dexys Midnight Runners.  The most obvious use of a song as a signifier comes in the form of the David Bowie and Brian Eno composition “Heroes” of 1977.  This song, played while the characters are driving through a tunnel, emotes not only to the characters in the film but also the audience observing them.  The desperation of the two lovers meeting by the wall in Bowie’s song is transposed by visual association to the characters in the film, signifying their own perceived desperation and tragedy.  Strangely enough, this song was used to the same effect in Ulrich Edel’s 1982 film Christiane F.  However, Edel used the song as his film’s singular foray into establishing a sentimental attachment between his audience and the characters in his film.  Once he has established this link via Heroes, he retreats entirely from that formula and adopts an unprecedented naturalism in his film.

This brings us to the most successful films of this genre, those that utilize a lack of sentimentality to confront their audience with palpable experiences designed to stimulate intellectual debate and reassessment.  After a single scene of sentimental tactics, Edel thrusts his protagonists into the world of child prostitutes in the West Berlin of the Cold War.  Edel’s adherence to total realism subverts the audience’s expectations and forces them to experience the narrative with the characters sans the stylistic release and comfortable distance of films like The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.  Even more extreme in their non-sentimental view of adolescence are the ensemble dramas of the nineties and early 2000s that include films such as Kids (Clark, 1995), Gummo (Korine, 1998), Elephant (Van Sant, 2003) and to a lesser extent Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009).  These films, in most instances, do away with the three-act structure and character study format of Hughes and Crowe in favor of recreating the atmosphere of adolescence.  By subjecting the audience to an experience without any stylistic levity these filmmakers are able to create a fabrication closer to what could be considered the truth.

So why then was The Perks Of Being A Wallflower the critical darling of 2012?  In part perhaps because of the success of the novel on which it was based, but it is more likely it is due to the fact that Chbosky was able to construct a film in the tradition of Hughes and Crowe while still alluding to such hot topic issues as pedophilia, closet homosexuality and teenage drug use.  Regardless, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a film indicative of two things.  The first is a decline in filmic literacy amongst popular audiences and second the fact that American audiences would rather not address the truth of a situation.

-Robert Curry

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