“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Being a teenager sucks. Adolescence is a transitionary period of a few of the best of times, and a lot of the worst of times. It’s a period of discovery when we begin to solidify the process of self-understanding; littered with trauma, self-doubt and unfathomable levels of angst. As a result it’s an experience that cinema often depicts very well indeed. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is an example of this. The original novel, written in 1999, and the film, released in 2012, were both written by Stephen Chbosky, who manages to capture the self-disdainful, confused yet occasionally wondrous teenage years when you feel like the whole world is watching you yet not a soul actually cares about you.
Charlie (Logan Lerman), the protagonist of TPOBAW, starts off feeling a lot like that. It’s his first day of high school. His best, and only, friend committed suicide that spring. Although this day may be a new start for Charlie he feels too scared by his past to participate in his present – he’s got 1,200+ days until graduation. Maybe then he can be free.
A new–found friendship with step siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) happens by chance. They bring him into their group of outsiders, the wallflowers. Every member of the group, including and especially Patrick and Sam, have their own struggles and issues yet feel liberated from these thanks to their strong friendship which Charlie is quickly accepted into.
Where the film truly succeeds is in how it portrays this friendship. As in life, these friendships do not magically heal or fix Charlie, but they give him the love and support he needs to address the events of his past that he does not full remember. Few films are able to tackle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with such sympathy or realism, Charlie’s flashbacks are brief and sporadic glimpses into his past – pieces of a jigsaw his brain refuses to let him complete.
In turn this then allows for an exploration of anxiety, depression and the impact this has on self-value and self-worth. This isn’t an after-school special preaching its message, possessing an unequivocal definition and giving answers. It shows a version of mental health that is founded in truth: that no two individuals have the exact same experiences; sometimes we ourselves cannot truly understand or explain how we are feeling and that sometimes we can be existing but not really living.
Also, never underappreciate the importance of good music. Mix-tapes are important here – it’s set in the early 1990s after all. The beauty of the cassette (and to a less romantic extent the CD or Spotify playlist) is that it allows the composer to express how they feel, orchestrate their emotions in a manner their words will not allow them to express – a roll of film uniting your heart to mine. It also helps that the music on these mix-tapes, and the film’s soundtrack itself is so good. From ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths, to ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and, perhaps surprisingly, ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners – each song epitomises a moment of joy. Self-discovery isn’t a momentous and strenuous climb, it’s a series of steps and moments that allow us to begin to understand who we are.
That’s where Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) comes in. The film is the brightest beacon of them all for any teen who feels different and alone (a sentiment that comes from self-experience!) It’s a film that defines the wallflowers and brings them together; the cinema becoming a haven, a temple of self-exploration and self-identification. This is the greatest joy of friendship, when kindred spirits unite and put vulnerability to one side to live, however momentarily, without fear.
That’s the film’s strongest and greatest message. No matter how awful you feel. No matter what has gone on before. No matter what you think lies ahead. You are not alone. Being a teenager sucks in many ways but those moments of connectivity, there’s truly nothing like them. “C’mon. Lets go be psychos together!”