‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ Still Blooms in a Field of Coming-of-Age Dramas

When it comes to teenage coming-of-age films, Perks of Being a Wallflower’s somber bildungsroman was pivotal in the genre, distinguishing itself from counterpart teenage films that relied on cookie-cutter-formulas. With September 21st marking Perks of Being a Wallflower’s seventh anniversary, a sincere reflection was needed to appreciate how far teenage coming-of-age films have progressed since then.

Criticizing coming-of-age films today — the heightened acclaim for Ladybird, how delicately To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before enfolds old tropes in relevant times and Moonlight’s reverence (yes, this is very much a coming-of-age film) —  we have to accept that it has only reached this incredible point because we endured through the cringe of the early-2010’s teen movies.

These films tried too hard to copy the likes of the cult classic early-2000’s teen films and the results were embarrassing, to say the least. Perks of Being a Wallflower was released among these second-hand embarrassing teen films but remains as an essential teen movie that defined the coming-of-age genre, unknowingly in its own time. And it is this that makes Perks of Being a Wallflower so refined as a film.   

As we approach the dawn of a new decade, time seems to be moving faster to capture the teenage experience on film. John Hughes shone a light on teenagers’ agency in the 80s, the classic 90s explored the perils of finding one’s self through important issues such as race, class status, and friendship, and the early 2000s toppled the myths of popularity and internalized-misogyny. All of these teen movies share a theme that is connected to a thread of love. But there’s a gap between the late-2000’s and the early-2010’s teen movies.

This gap was slow and notably a cringe-worthy transition from ‘teen movies’ to the defined genre known as ‘coming-of-age.’ It can be argued that most teen movies are coming-of-age movies, but the gap between the late-2000’s and the early-2010’s distinguishes this with the release of Perks of Being a Wallflower.

It’s gratifying to realize that this film was released in 2012 and remains one of the very few accurate representations of teenage mental illness, sexual assault, drug use, sexual identity, and depression – whereas teenage contemporary dramas of today are still romanticizing and manipulating these aspects.

Author of the book, Stephen Chbosky, took the onus of adapting and directing this feature film to portray the true complexities of his characters on screen as it is in his book. Chbosky had regained balance on the coming-of-age connecting thread of love that was absent in the gap of late-2000’s and early-2010’s teen movies. 

Perks of Being a Wallflower follows Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he begins freshman year of high school, still reeling from the suicide of a close friend and the haunting memories of his aunt’s molestation and manipulation of him as a child. With no friends except the letters of ‘Dear Friend’ that he diarizes and addresses the viewers to. Charlie becomes enamored with seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson, in her first role outside the Harry Potter universe). To Charlie, Patrick and Sam represent free expression he wishes he could release to the world if it wasn’t for his anxiety holding him back. So as hard as it is for Charlie to break out of his shell, Patrick and Sam understandingly allow Charlie to be comfortable in his introversion; proclaiming him as a “wallflower.”  

Perks subverts cringe-worthy and common tropes in order to invest in the central theme of the inevitability of terrible things that happens to yourself and those around you. Patrick is the not-so-closeted gay best friend, but it’s important to realize that Ezra Miller portrays Patrick with such nuance that he is not the caricatured ‘Gay Best Friend.’ Sam can be categorized as the manic-pixie-dream girl or the out-of-the-protagonist’s-league love interest, but Emma Watson ensures Sam’s traits can only be seen as that of an impulsive teenager.

Patrick and Sam are inherently good-natured with eccentric personalities as they strive towards a happy high school ending. But the terrible inevitability is weaved into their fates; Patrick’s closeted boyfriend becomes violently homophobic against him. Sam is torn between her toxic boyfriend and Charlie’s deepening crush for her.

The film is realistic in its non-linear progression; the characters’ happiness always being compromised by a terrible inevitability that makes it seem like they will never relieve themselves from their external and inner-conflicts. But these difficult times are resolved through moments of infiniteness – depicted in the film as driving through a tunnel as the characters reach the light at the end. It’s this metaphor that comes to life that the characters cling to.

 The depiction of love in the film — platonic and romantic, unrequited and toxic —  is sharply accurate. Besides the theme of the inevitability of life, the film heavily relies on love. The film connects to the coming-of-age thread of love, but this does not mean that the characters do. Despite their differences, Charlie, Sam, Patrick and their eccentric group of friends all yearn for love — grasping at whatever they can reach only for it to be slipped from their fingers due to the terrible inevitability.

So when their love remains unrequited after all their efforts; we see the characters resort to drug use, to one-night-stands, to anything that could fulfill the feeling of love that they so desire. This is what makes ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ so authentic that it resonates today; this yearning for love in the teenage experience.

Love is uncategorized in this film and displays all of its varying forms, similar to how Generation Z views it today, but it remains something that drives the characters. The cast carries this yearning for love through the stages of idealization, comic relief, drama and, finally, the core of the self. Each layer of the teenage experience is broken down, the inevitability of a terrible occurrence pulling the characters away from the happiness of themselves and each other. The film becomes dark; Charlie’s past becomes harder to avoid and his future becomes bleak to reach.

Not only does Perks subvert the cringey teen tropes we’re embarrassed from, but it also delivers a somber bildungsroman of characters merely trying to make it through life. This is why the film transcends its cringey teen movie era to be relevant today. Because even after all these years, when Paul Rudd’s character grimly looks into Charlie’s eyes and tells him, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” it still makes viewers hold their breath to let the words hit.

Perks of Being a Wallflower represents a general yearning for idealized teenage years; with friends, with love, with happiness. All of the things the characters from Perks sought after, and all of the things Generation Z teenagers seek for. But the preceding generation was not so transparent with their goals and emotions. With the rapid rise of social media and surrounded by notions of romanticization of issues, like mental illness and sexual assault that play huge roles in the film, were reduced to its cringey counterparts.

It’s the particular fixation of Tumblr users that romanticized the key issues in Perks that has stigmatized the film as being pretentious and “edgy.” This has prevented the film from receiving the recognition it so deserves as a distinguishing coming-of-age drama. For too long, the film’s resonance and subversion of common teenage tropes remained misunderstood and ridiculed because of its association to “edgy” social media users that romanticize the issues the public still callously grapple today.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is mercilessly authentic to the teenage experience and delicately depicts important issues like mental illness, sexual identity, and sexual assault. We can still find elements and structures from Perks that lingers in recent coming-of-age films, like a crushed flower that still gives off its fragrance. With stylish shots, slick humor and the manifestation of such powerful feelings on the film, the impact of ‘Perks’ may have seemed trivial at the time but it has sustained a moment of infiniteness in the coming-of-age genre. 

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