A million poppies is gonna make me sleep,
Just one rose and knows your name.
The fruit is rusting on the vine.
The fruit is calling from the trees.
“I was that weird kid who spent time in the hospital,” offers Charlie (Logan Lerman) at the start of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Like many high schoolers, Charlie is worried about how his classmates see him. His worry is redoubled by the fact that he’s also got a difficult past, spelled out in a series of increasingly clumsy flashbacks as well as his rather too helpful voiceover. He’s less weird than he is familiar, that hyper-articulate, emotionally damaged, endearing, and charismatic aspiring writer kid.
As he begins high school following his unseen stint in the hospital, Charlie is fortunate to meet a few people, including his very encouraging English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), and a couple of especially wondrous seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie earns his invitation onto their “island of misfit toys” by making an effort to be nice to Patrick following a shop class showdown, during which the proudly gay Patrick tries to out-talk their macho teacher (Tom Savini, of all people). Where the other kids take the easy route, making fun of Patrick just as the teacher does, Charlie commends his rebellious performance.
It’s handy that Charlie does so while they’re sitting on the bleachers at a football game. That he goes to a football game at all has to do with his effort to please his predictably oblivious dad (Dylan McDermott), an effort premised on their mutual desire that Charlie “won’t get bad again,” which apparently means hallucinate and feel suicidal. (It’s not clear why going to a football game seems like an alternate route, except that this is what kids do in high school movies, perhaps especially when their parents urge them to “move on.”) The bleachers serve a more particular purpose, situating Charlie in a tight spot between Patrick and Sam, whereupon he can appreciate Patrick’s wit and admire Sam’s luminous beauty, misunderstand their relationship (and so not get that Patrick is secretly seeing a football player, Brad [Johnny Simmons]), and also fall in love with Sam, who loves the Smiths.
The music cues are key throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by director Stephen Chbosky from his own 1999 young adult novel. They define the kids as “alternative,” sometimes to each other and always to everyone else in school, and also establish a general time period, the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, when kids make each other mix-tapes (literal cassette tapes that include tracks by New Order, Sonic Youth, and Cocteau Twins) and put on exuberant shows at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror. That they don’t know David Bowie is a bit of an unexplained anomaly, but it serves a story arc having to do with Charlie and company’s desire to “be heroes.” This arc sets Charlie, Patrick, and Sam—as well as some other misfits who are crudely typed (a rich girl who steals jeans from stores, a bossy girl who loves movies, a tall usually stoned boy who lurks in party scene backgrounds)—onto a regular trajectory toward self-understanding and, of course, understanding of each other.
This general time period raises other questions too, say, how is it that Charlie is released from the hospital without any sort of follow-up therapy (where’s Judd Hirsch when you need him?). That time period might also help to frame the result of all that time the kids spend without adults, their ongoing self-therapizing (including their decisions to medicate Charlie with pot brownies and acid tabs) and maybe even the adults’ sometimes stunning ineffectiveness. Apart from one-time playwright Mr. Anderson’s post-class chats with Charlie, offering so-regular reading assignments (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye) and the unsurprising suggestion that Charlie “write one of them,” the grownups barely speak, and tend to sit in the corners of frames as kids pass through.
The exception is Charlie’s Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), who shows up in flashbacks with young Charlie, her death in a car accident a seeming mechanism for his “getting bad.” Helen comes to visit while she’s working out or getting out of an abusive relationship with a man, and the details are suitably vague, given Charlie’s point of view. But the film sets up this incredibly complex relationship—which is framed by Charlie’s unclear relationships with his mostly mute parents, as well as his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) and her abusive boyfriend Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun), as well as his Penn State football star brother Chris (Zane Holtz)—and then offers very little exploration of it. It’s unclear whether this lack of detail has to do with Charlie’s own inability to articulate his education—despite being so chatty about so many other, less fraught, aspects of his experience—or the movie’s own resistance to thinking through the hard parts, how Helen or Patrick or Sam or Candace, for examples, not only fill out Charlie’s helpfully weird supporting cast, but also live out their own experiences.
The lack of detail is of a piece with a raft of vague elements in Charlie’s sphere, from Patrick to Sam, from classes other than English and shop to the revelation he feels at the homecoming dance, watching Sam dance with attractive, if clichéd, abandon, or the fear he feels during a battle in the cafeteria, when suddenly he’s transformed into Jason Bourne, utterly brutal and conveniently blacked out.
Such gaps might make sense in another movie, one that might posed ongoing questions and doubts for Charlie. But this one is determined to resolve his issues, sending him into happy romance, love from his friends, and peace with his parents. We’re mostly left to take all this on faith. At least we’re left to believe this happens because he’s met, at last, a doctor played by Joan Cusack. Really, all she has to do is show up.