The high school coming-of-age drama is my personal soft spot.
It’s been so for a long time. For me, there was always an intrinsic appeal to watching an adolescent (or, as is often the case, a group of them) stumble through school, family, love and life and walk out of these adventures a different person by the end. And, sometime ago, I underwent something similar myself as I left my family, school and the city I called home from birth to come to Mumbai for further studies, embracing a wholly new life in the process. I didn’t think it possible earlier, but I now connect to this subgenre even more.
If you’ve known me for some time and/or followed my writing, this may not even be a surprise for you. Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is one of my favorite films from the last few years. There are things from that film, moments like Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr sitting together watching the sun set, that I keep going over again and again in my head. Last year, a small indie called Myth of the American Sleepover won me over completely and the dreamlike, whimsical feel of that film is something I often reminisce about.
This year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower looked set to fill that void. I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t know of the existence of Stephen Chbosky’s book till earlier this year, when talk of the film intensified. I wasn’t even planning on reading it till word came out of festivals that the film was (surprisingly, in some cases) very good. I’m providing this background because I want you to know that when I began reading the book, I knew exactly who was playing whom, so much so that I had some images from the trailer embedded in memory too.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie, a shy teenager who’s about to start his first year of high school. The book is epistolary; the narrative is a series of letters Charlie is writing to an unknown person. The reason he’s doing this is because he doesn’t have any close relatives or friends to confide in. He’s just recovering from the death from a close friend and is anxious about what’s coming up in life. Once in high school, Charlie runs into Patrick and Sam, a brother-sister pair who embrace Charlie and guide him through the confusing but mesmerizing world of high school.
Perks is a quick read. I finished most of it in one Sunday evening. But I don’t mean that as a slight, implying it’s light or disposable in any way. It’s a quick read because it’s immersive. A few pages in, you’re fully engrossed in the world of the story. You’re living and breathing with the protagonist as he goes about life. This is very helpful, more so than it might be for some other novel. The issues Charlie faces are often clichéd (and maybe even trivial) but because we are in his shoes, facing them with him and as him, they are worth the world for us. The story lives and falls by how effective its rose-tinted feel is; there’s a sense of nostalgia and bittersweet self-awareness pervasive throughout the novel that forms its character.
It’s not a perfect work of literature, by any means. The clichés get to you after a point and it’s hard not to roll your eyes at just how been-there-done-that some aspects of the story are. Charlie is quite prone to crying, to put it mildly. While this is sobering – and even affecting – at first, it comes up so often that it becomes a running joke by the end. It’d also make for a borderline lethal drinking game. Also, he thinks Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is an excellent book.
However, it’s that sense of nostalgia I talked about above that has me psyched for the movie. Few things are as powerful on the big screen for me on an emotional level. And it’s not like the story itself isn’t emotional. There are moments of such impact and observations of such insight in the novel that they made me sit up straight. I could relate to Charlie and the situations he goes through, sometimes in ways that made me feel uncomfortable. Moreover, this was one case where knowing which actor was playing which character helped me visualize the story a lot better. Without going into specifics, I’ll just say that Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own story for the big screen here, has assembled a cast that’s nearly pitch-perfect.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower hasn’t released in India yet. Given how distribution of small-scale foreign films works here, I’m not sure if it ever will. But, I’m not worried. I’ll see the film when it comes out on DVD. I just know that I’ll be waiting eagerly till that day arrives.