Perks of Being a Wallflower

Right now we are alive and in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.

I always think it’s exciting when books I love are turned into films because it signifies that someone else understands how powerful, beautiful, poignant and amazing this book is and they want to share it with an audience. While I realize that is not always the motivation in Hollywood, in this case I’d believe it to be true considering producer John Malkovich went straight to author Stephen Chbosky to adapt the screenplay and that Chbosky was hired to direct.  It isn’t frequently the norm in Hollywood that a novice director would be given the opportunity to direct a high volume project. Then again, he is a dude.

If you have no relationship to the book, or if you’re not really into movies that reflect reality, you may find this film depressing or even boring. Set in the early 90’s in suburban Pittsburgh, Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman) a lonely high school freshman recovering from the suicide of his best friend and working through a lifetime of unbalanced emotions. Urged by his therapist to “participate,” Charlie seeks salvation with the help of two new friends, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), the guidance of his English teacher (Paul Rudd), and, the ultimate life saving device – music.

While the film did a good job painting the picture of adolescent “outcast” culture it was a little too glossy. Having the author so involved is certainly what saved Perks from being a watered down replica of itself but the film was produced within the “Hollywood machine,” essentially sacrificing some of the creative control that may have lent to it’s authenticity. Another coming of age story set in the mid-90’s, 2008’s The Wackness was a period piece that made me nostalgic for the era in which it was set  and the music triggered as much of a response as the plot and performances. But, the film adaptation of Perks just made me nostalgic for the book. Oh, isn’t that always the case?  Chbosky himself admitted this was one of the most difficult projects he’s worked on:

“It was the most challenging screenplay I’ve ever written, just by the nature of what the book was — a first-person epistolary novel. To turn that into something objective with the same emotional intimacy and emotional catharsis was hard.” (Miami Herald, 9/30/12)

The music for the most part stayed true to the book except for a brief cameo by Cracker’s Low, which was never mentioned in the book and wasn’t released until 1993. This was nullified when Dear God by XTC, a staple of my freshman year in the suburbs of Philadelphia, played a narrator’s role in a significant transitional scene. A letter to God questioning the pain and sorrow in the world, I still sing the opening line to myself when I am feeling particularly hopeless:

Your connection to the characters, and especially Charlie, will ultimately decide how much you enjoy the film and Lerman (Hoot) succeeds in delivering a deeply moving performance. Part of Charlie’s alienation, and woven into the subtext of the film, is the deviation from traditional male behavior. Charlie is emotional, caring, reserved. He’s not an athlete or a Casanova. He is moved by music and literature. We continuously see his admiration of and respect for women – in his support of his sister after he witness her boyfriend slap her and his unconditional love for Sam, regardless of the rumors that tarnish her reputation. And, while dating violence and slut shaming are both serious issues affecting teen girls, the core of the film brings much needed attention to the complicated experience of boys, driven by Charlie and Patrick.

Two of my favorite young actors, Lerman and Miller both offer a unique portrayal of masculinity essential to both of their characters. Miller (City Island) infuses Patrick with a delightful fervor for life and irreverence for his tormentors. How much of is bravado remains unclear until what he is finally given cause to break out.  In one of the most volatile scenes both Charlie and Patrick are caught in a convolution of anger, fear, violence, aggression and survival. When Patrick is beaten and emotionally broken, it is Charlie who comes to his rescue both physically and emotionally.  The tenderness of their relationship is another powerful image for teens to receive.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is certainly not the traditional “teen romp” caliber but these are important characters for young adult audiences. Perks couldn’t be better timed to reflect challenges contemporary teenagers face in their everyday lives and if they only find support and solidarity on film than it’s better than nothing. Truly, the story is timeless and for many us the haunts and angst of adolescence stay with us well into adulthood. The desire to belong, to be valued, to protect the ones we love and of course, the hardest part, to just be happy.

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50/50

First things first – Spoiler alert. This film is based on a true story about a twenty something guy, Adam, who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The guy lived to write a book about his experience so you know it’s going to end well. Um, well enough? He survives. This doesn’t make the film any less moving. It’s not sad because he gets cancer or happy because he survives it. It’s a journey through and beyond all of those emotions as well as the dynamics of relationship and the truth about humanity.

Let’s get straight to the point. This movie was brilliantly cast and impeccably directed. As if any of us needed another reason to love Joseph Gordon Levitt. Jesus. Who knew this child sitcom star was going to grow into one of the most interesting actors of his generation who continues to choose roles that rip into the hearts of everyday people. But, color me surprised, it was Seth Rogen’s Kyle that really brought this movie home for me. Not because this character was a stretch for him – he’s pretty much the same obnoxious asshole he is in every movie. But because this time it had purpose and a noble purpose to boot. Every person needs a friend like Kyle – someone who will treat you the same even when everything is changing, someone who will kick your lying, cheating, skank of a girlfriend/boyfriend out of your house and, above all, someone who will respond with honesty when you tell them the worst news of your life:

Unlike another recent page to screen adaption, The Help, where some of the most poignant moments were lost in the director’s explanation, 50/50 director Will Raiser allows space for the unsaid. His awareness of the complexities of Adam’s diagnosis, for Adam himself and those around him, as well as the larger narrative around the medical industry, are attended to with graceful subtlety. As a 27 year-old who doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs and exercises regularly Adam is beyond baffled by his diagnosis, which is delivered by his doctor in medical jargon and sans eye contact. It’s a moment, an experience, that can’t be fully described or understood only felt. Reiser has an astute grasp on the ways comprehension and language fail and invites us into Adam’s head using only a song:

The rest of the film evolves from this moment. Kyle’s fear for his friend is apparent yet masked by humor and Rogen nails this delivery in the way that only he can. His performance is perfectly juxtaposed by JGL’s straight man who, thanks to the stark humbleness of the actor’s portrayal, is anything but boring. The most interesting part was watching Adam’s walls come down and the way his world shifts because of it.

A Bromantic Attempt at Feminism

Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)—the uber-sexual, tongue-in-cheek (and anywhere else you’ll let him stick it) Brit-rocker introduced to audiences in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall—is back in the latest film from yet another member of the Apatow Film Club for Boys. Based on characters created by Jason Segel, and written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, Get Him to the Greek is an often-comical, always offensive satire of the music industry, rock ‘n’ roll culture, and America’s reverence for all things celebrity.

Capitalizing on the fervor ignited by Brand, Get Him to the Greek succeeds in blurring the line between reality and fiction through inclusion of an original soundtrack and videos (performed by Brand and co-star Rose Byrne) and cameos by more than one recognizable pop artist and media outlet. Brand is refreshingly genuine as a privileged star struggling to gain control of his life, while Byrne offers hilarious support as Snow’s ex-wife and musical partner, Jackie Q. Effortlessly, she rivals Brand with her own sincere wit as she admits on Showbiz Tonight how bored she is with her husband’s sobriety.

I expected to like this film, and I did. Stoller bravely explores intimacy among men and, similar to I Love You, Man, his manuscript explores the complex dynamics of male relationships by offering glimpses of sincerity, vulnerability, and affection, elements often ignored in favor of more acceptably masculine attributes. However, as is often the case in Hollywood, without being well-versed in feminist values, what is meant to be ironic instead reinforces stereotypes and makes it that much harder for girls to be in on the joke.

Some attempts at humor are more problematic than others. While attempting to wrangle Snow in Vegan and escort him to New York City, music intern Aaron (Jonah Hill) is ordered by his boss Sergio (Sean “P Diddy” Combs) to have sex with a woman he’s just met, Destiny. Actually, Sergio commands Destiny to “[t]ake this man into the bedroom and have sex with him,” and she readily complies. What follows is a pointless scene in which the petite Destiny forces the hefty Aaron to have sex with her. He says, “No.” He “protests.” (In reality, he could have easily tossed her off him.) Finally, he returns to his friends and announces, “I think I was just raped.” They laugh, and so does the audience. Gross.

In a perfect world, we can laugh about anything. Considering the world we live in, however, perhaps the more appropriate question is “who is allowed to laugh about rape?” When victims speak out with humor about their own lived experience, they are ridiculed or shamed, but when white men in Hollywood poke fun, its satire. Satire, by definition, is an exaggeration that is so far from reality that it is ridiculous to even consider. (The punchline to this joke being how ridiculous and non-threatening rape is for men – that men can’t be raped.) Unfortunately, this moment in Get Him to the Greek reinforces cultural myths surrounding the acceptance of rape. Instead of calling attention to the cultural, systemic, powerful epidemic of sexual violence, the “joke” nullifies its severity by applying it to the most powerful social group (white men).

The film industry is a site where creative potential can be harnessed to provoke meaningful change, and this band of brothers has the ability to lead the way for other Freaks and Geeks. But if we don’t start getting some feminist minds in on the action, these bright men are headed straight for the John Mayer Celebrity School of Shame.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference