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Mind Over Pop Culture: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Trauma has come up a lot in this blog. Movies use it, and grief, as a quick way to create tension and conflict in plots. Some works handle it better than others (in particular, Iron Man 3), and others mention it in passing. However, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the first time I’ve seen it used so effectively.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie, a freshman in high school. He is uncomfortable and out of place. However, he becomes friends with a group of seniors who call themselves Wallflowers, especially Patrick and Sam. Step-siblings, they become Charlie’s best friends. Throughout the movie, we learn that Charlie’s middle school best friend completed suicide the year before, and he spent time in a mental hospital. While he struggles with the pitfalls of classes, cliques and dating, he deals with the issues in from his past, including sexual abuse.

This movie reminded me a lot of Ordinary People. The focus of this is much more on Charlie’s friendships rather than his family, but the understanding of teenagers has the same feel. Charlie deals with the “regular” issues of high school while trying to deal with the added trauma, which Ordinary People’s Conrad faced as well. Charlie’s family is much more supportive, but in both movies, the main support comes from the friendship the main character gets from people his own age. Both even have an adult figure who understands them; in this movie, it is Charlie’s English teacher.

I was really impressed with the way Charlie’s character is shown in different phases of recovery. At the beginning of the movie, he’s out of the hospital and in a good place, despite not having any friends. As the movie progresses, he runs into situations that mirror the abuse he survived, and his ability to cope frays. His inability to separate love from pain causes him serious issues that everyone in the movie takes seriously, (and is mirrored by his friends’ experiences, which are not at the same level as his own). His hospitalization is seen as a necessary and positive way for him to get help. This is a nice progression from Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation (and that I hope signals a change in the general perception of mental health overall, especially in the next generation). In addition, Charlie sees the hospital as a positive place, where his family and friends support him and he gets treatment. It’s another positive view of mental health coming from Hollywood.

The overall feel of this movie is hopeful, more so than a lot of movies I’ve seen for this blog. The movie is a coming of age story that happens to include serious trauma, trauma that affects the way Charlie interacts with the world. The Perks of Being a Wallflower could have been made without this element of the plot, but like Charlie, it wouldn’t be the same. Trauma and mental health are placed in the same category as homophobia; both are enormous issues that can be faced, if not overcome. That fact that Charlie isn’t ostracized, seen as a freak or abused alone is a positive step. The movie should be celebrated that it shows the main character as the hero of the story, and trauma as just another terrible thing about high school. Charlie is even told “It gets better” at one point. At another, he mentions that one day, he and all of his friends will just be someone’s parents. That kind of hopefulness is a really great message, and in the kind of movie teenagers will watch (Even in the ‘80s, Ordinary People was a movie for adults).

I really enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, and certainly a good sign about the progression of the views of trauma in media. We’re moving in the right direction, if slowly, and this movie gave me a lot of hope for the future.

Next week, we’ll take a few steps back and watch Sybil, the mother of all dissociative identity disorder movies. Have you seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower? What did you think?

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