“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” Isn’t Just Bad, It’s Offensive

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” Isn’t Just Bad, It’s Offensive


Charlie—the hero of The Perks of Being a Wallflower—and I have a lot in common. We both went to high school in the early 90s, we both were bullied by boys and shy with girls, and we both were linguistically precocious and favored manual typewriters. The only differences between us were that, unlike me, Charlie was befriended by the most beautiful girl and the most charismatic boy in school; experimented with illegal drugs that made him the life of the party; and physically dominated bullies by drawing on reservoirs of dark strength he possessed as a result of childhood traumas.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the new film written and directed by Stephen Chbosky as an adaptation of his 1999 novel, presents adolescence as a time uniquely marked by transcendent highs and crippling lows. The lows suffered by Chbosky’s characters are lower than those endured by the average teenager, but the characters soar beyond them with such contrived effortlessness that the film goes beyond simply being bad: it’s offensive.

Charlie is played by Logan Lerman, looking cute and poised and—like every other character in this film—completely lacking acne. At the beginning of his freshman year of high school he’s pushed around by a few upperclassmen, but he handles the mistreatment with the stoic determination of a boy who hopes that soon he’ll be taken under the wing of a gorgeous senior (Emma Watson) who considers herself an outsider because she has “a reputation” and whose best friend is her charming gay step-brother (Ezra Miller) who’s surreptitiously bedding the hottest jock in school. Stay gold, y’all.

His new friends are soon introducing Charlie to their supporting-character buddies and taking him to well-lit house parties that, despite the apparently wanton use of drugs and alcohol, make after-school soda stops at The Max look like wild bacchanals. “My life is now officially an after-school special,” declares one character, which is funny in an unintended way: in what after-school special is a near-deadly bad trip played for laughs, is an abusive relationship shrugged off when it becomes inconvenient for the plot, is a romantic betrayal discovered just in time to dump the dude before college, is a closeted jock gracious to the nerd who steps up to defend his secret boyfriend from the jock’s buddies, and are two teenage characters with deeply troubled sexual histories able to shrug them off so as to have a gentle and beautiful first night together?

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky’s strategy is to take a featherweight plot centering on an apparently unrequited crush and tether it to serious issues in a seeming attempt to lend gravity to the proceedings, but the scenarios are so hackneyed and contrived that the film feels less like a poignant memory than a shallow fairy tale shot in Hipstamatic. Even the college rock soundtrack makes no sense—these characters trade informed opinions on deep tracks by the Smiths and Galaxie 500 but take months to figure out who sang “Heroes”?

A lot of teenagers—and people who formerly were teenagers—will probably like this film because it looks pretty, sounds nice, and compliments them without challenging them. Compare The Perks of Being a Wallflower, though, to a film like The Breakfast Club. That movie is also about the travails of teenage life, but John Hughes’s characters are complex individuals who struggle with the stereotypes they find themselves cast into. Chbosky’s characters simply enact their stereotypes, and they have no reason not to. When being a wallflower comes with such wildly implausible perks, why do anything off the wall?

Jay Gabler

  • Amelia

    I think you’ve completely missed the point. On the point about the abusive relationship that was “dismissed”, I think it wasn’t that it was dismissed, but rather (without giving too much away) because of Charlie’s past, he does not see anything to fix of it because part of his brain sees the abuse as something that almost runs in his family. I think you’ll also find through a little internet searching that there was originally scenes of his sister’s abortion that were cut out because it would’ve forced the movie into an R-rating. As for the lack of acne, well, I suppose that’s simply the way of Hollywood, even in a darker film about adolescence, they still want to create beautiful characters that youth will want to look up to. I suppose you’ll just have to deal with that.

    With all do respect,

    ~Amelia~

    • Thanks for your comment, Amelia. I understand the place of Charlie’s sister’s relationship in his story arc, but after the cuts you describe, I thought it distracted from his story rather than added to it—because we learn so little about his sister and her relationship, it just feels sensationalistic and glossed-over. Maybe Chbosky should have just cut that whole subplot from the movie. And you’re certainly correct that many movies present characters who are idealized physically or otherwise, but I thought that decision—to make these characters all quite attractive—seemed especially ill-judged in this film that otherwise seemed to want to feel gritty and real.

    • James Morse

      This book is poorly written, and just a diluted version of Catcher in the Rye. The plotholes, lack of clever crafting techniques just results in a creation of a book that encourages people to develop this egocentric ideal of themselves that they’re special. It’s just bullshit, because these problems are just experienced by the middle to upperclass, those who can afford to worry about being with a pretty girl and whatever Dawson’s Creek consumerist crape. The “big” plot twist of him being abused is just so predictable and by no means justify this form of Judaic bullying system he tries to implement. The past effects you are referring to are called “lacuna” and this book poorly uses this technique, as in, the characters stay flat and two-dimensional. Read Sydney Bridge Upside Down, it’s so much better.

  • Josie

    Was looking for a gif when I came across this. THANK YOU. This movie infuriated me. The “Heroes” thing drove me crazy, but the worst part comes after the kid puts his foot in it with all of his new buddies. My goodness, the first honest moment in this film. A socially awkward person does something socially awkward. He pays the price. These people who barely known him suddenly don’t find him so charming anymore. Okay, I’m in! But then he conveniently gets the opportunity to play the hero and comes through with (as you mentioned) superpowers. Who hasn’t wished that he/she would get to play the martyr or the hero as a way out of a bad situation? But it’s so LAZY as a plot device. And if they were going to do it, at least be honest about the beatdown he would have taken and the crap those kids would have given him forever after. This film is a lie and worse it’s a lie that gives kids really suffering through the nightmare of high school one more thing to feel inadequate about.

  • telemarker

    I recently watched this on an airplane and consider it one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. After landing, I couldn’t wait to go read all of the scathing reviews. Imagine my surprise when I realized the film was actually well received! A few things that make this such a terrible movie:

    1) The protoganist espouses wisdom like “I feel infinite”….with a straight face…
    2) one-dimensional characters: I couldn’t figure out if the comment about “my life is an after high school special” was supposed to be meta, because the film was stacked with so many cliches I felt like I knew what was going to happen the entire time.
    3) Everyone loves the protagonist, yet the he never does anything loveworthy…..remember, he said “I feel infinite”….with a straight face…..
    4) The acting: Terrible. There are some lines that Emma drops in the first 30 minutes of the film that are truly cringe worthy.
    5) I honestly felt like the movie was written and directed by a high schooler. It was THAT pretentious, and lacked even a modicum of wisdom or insight…..I feel infinite…..It reminded me of how I felt when I was a high schooler and felt tortured and unappreciated. Then I grew up and realized that EVERYONE feels tortured and unappreciated in high school.
    6) The film lacks a resolution in which any of the characters transcend their juvenile dispositions. As far as I can tell, they go on living life feeling like they are the center of the universe, wishing and hoping that someday everyone will be privy to their deep and wonderful insights….I feel infinite….then the world will understand how truly wonderful they are….*barf*

  • Dan

    Great review, Jay. I had been looking for someone who addressed the phoniness of this movie. In particular the grand musical mystery of the song “Heroes” among characters who pat themselves on the back for putting the Shaggs and Nick Drake on mixtapes is not just a detail flaw (like the use of a Cracker song that postdates the movie’s time frame); the search for the song is a major thematic point designed to symbolizes the characters’ self-discovery (“We could be heroes!”). The fact that the writer/director was so willing to jettison character verisimilitude to score a thematic point is at the core of what makes this movie so fake.

  • Camille

    Finally! Thank you for this, from the bottom of my heart. The title is what ticked me off in the first place, because like you said, for those lonely kids there are very few perks. High school is a sad, sad place for most, and denying it makes you a madman, full stop x)
    This movie was not only a dumb and transparent lie, it was also unoriginal, offensive, full of stupid Mary Sue fantasies, immature, embarrassing and stuffed with awful dialogue. I literally cringed. And believe me I tried not to, because I was sort of looking forward to a ‘grown up’ Hermione (awch, NOT) and I absolutely loved Miller in We Need to Talk, so I was thrilled to see him act a teen again. They both failed me big time; from the very beginning everything about this movie was off. Can’t imagine how people above the age of sixteen would like this, but then again I know a few and they’re decent human beings. Conclusion: there is no accounting for taste. Or for the swooning these Hollywood sweethearts seem to think they deserve for their cliched, cheesy, second-rate performances. Big fail, I’m sorry Ezra, Emma, but just, UGH.

  • extracurricular upbringing

    None of these people are wallflowers. None. If you know someone that has drugs in highschool you are not a wallflower. I didn’t know about anything sexual (I literally did not pay attention in biology and often went to the wrong class by accident) and did not know any drug references. I didn’t believe highschool kids actually smoked or drank. I thought they were all just working at crappy mall jobs and sucking at their extracurricular like me. I learned about all that stuff in college and it wasn’t even because I was doing it! I don’t know. I always feel so odd when anything about teens is in the media like we all did this as teens/teens now are all doing it presently. I was basically still a kid while everyone else was fucking and getting high. I thought that would be absolutely hilariously stupid to do that stuff at 15 so it could not possibly be true. I would say…so your mom drops you off at the movies, gives you spending money, and you use it to buy this ‘weed’ stuff…or you do ‘oral’ in the theater. haha yeah right. You are lame. Not knowing what any of that entailed at all or that yes…that’s exactly what they were doing. The only thing strange looking back is that I might have been prettier than I thought. That sometimes happens to girls going through puberty. In your mind you are still you but you have actually blossomed. So that was an odd disconnect between how I acted and lived day to day and how I was perceived. I still think it’s lame that teens are told this is how you all are. You are already doing this stuff so us adults are going to put it in your face every five seconds and then get mad when you all get pregnant. Adults write this stuff and produce these films and work at MTV. They teach teens how to do things they might not otherwise have done or cared for. Adults have a sick fascination with teen sexuality for vicarious/perverted reasons. They promote teenage debauchery and then love bashing it. That’s why I hate this movie. I have never seen anything that resembles my experience as a teen except maybe ‘Superbad’ where they just sit around talking and drinking slurpees and the lead girl was just an average, normal teen.

  • Maddy Jezerski

    My dear teenager from the 90s, this book is a work of fiction… meaning Chbosky could choose what happened to his characters, how many perks (or lack thereof) their life had, and ultimately decide their fate by combining 26 letters over, and over again. Nothing said he had to stay true to what your personal high school experience was like, maybe he wrote this book to give teenagers hope. I’m a rather uncool band nerd in current day high school, but thoroughly enjoy my high school experience so far; so should I be offended when an author tries to write a story about what a depressing life band nerds have in the 21st century? No, of course not, because that is the author’s imagination and they are simply exercising their right to use it. I understand how you can view some of these characters as flat, and might see them lacking in complexity, but when you really think about it, they changed a lot. Charlie went from socially awkward, traumatized, and scarred, to a young man with many friends and opportunities. Sam realized that she was worth something and that she could make her own decisions (*cough*, feminist). So yes, you are entitled to your own opinion of the book, but in my opinion you should not be calling this book offensive. Chbosky is simply using his imagination, and 26 letters, to create a work of fiction, a work that might be meant to give hope or might solely serve as a piece of entertainment; nevertheless it is not meant to model your personal high school experience so should not be offensive to you. Thank you for taking the time to read this ~

  • N

    I couldn’t disagree more! The Perks of Being a Wallflower explores the realness of mental illnesses, in a way that is relatable. The situations Charlie experience within his own mind, referred to as “lows, lower than that of the average teenager” do actually happen to everyday teenagers; I and many others cope with them every day. They’re more common than you seem to think. As for your about teenagers and people who were “formerly teenagers” enjoying this film because it “compliments them without challenging them”, weren’t you a teenager once too??

    Although I completely disagree with your opinion, I respect your right to have a different opinion. Calling the film as “offensive” just doesn’t seem to be a fitting description. I found that the film captured the panic of metal illness and trying to fit in quite well.

    • SuzanneSmith

      It is offensive in it’s shallow vulgarity. Unreal sexuality, unreal sitiuations, and cardboard characters. A mess

  • Claire Bennett

    Well I couldn’t agree more!!! Even though these characters were going through situations that are very relatable to myself and teenagers around me, I felt no connection towards them. They difinately re-enforced stereotypes! I have been involved in campaigns against domestic abuse and have heard many stories form victims; young, old, friends and strangers; and found that this issue wasn’t portrayed properly and was only used for the sake of the ‘poor depressed hurt’ teenager stereotype. I liked the soundtrack but thought again that it was only used in to portray the teenager rebel, outcast stereotype.

  • Reina Lorem

    You made one big mistake in trying to interpret the movie that made you completely miss everything about it that made it wonderfull. You assumed charlie was in highschool in the 1990’s when really its set in the late 1970’s maybe early 80’s. Rampant drug use and alcohol abuse was normal in highschool then. I actually wrote a huge essay on this for school a few years back and I still love this to this day. This movie and the book make me feel things and see things that I now share with others, a great understanding how everything you do affects others. and heres the thing, in the book Sam isnt the most beautiful, shes flawed and thats what makes you fall in love with her. And Patrick? he may seem like the most charasmatic to a freshmen with no friends (which you need to keep in mind this entire story is being retold by Charlie while he is in the hospital durning the mental break down at the end, so some of the things he says are warped by his point of view) But he is a gay man in the 70/80’s though flamboyant most people hate him, simply because of who he is. Charlie is not the life of the party, sure a couple people notice him and that is the focus of it but he is a wallflower, he sits on the sidelines mostly and watches, the only time he is close to the life of the party is the first time he gets baked, and even then he says “i didnt think anyone noticed me” because most of the party was spent doing other things elsewhere but shocker we only saw the main character because he doesnt remember the rest of the party.

    As far as the ” transcendent highs and crippling lows” go I get charlie, I am a person who deals with anxiety and depression, and as a misfit myself everyone I know deals with some form of mental illness or other its just what the out crowd is usually like. So we smile and we pretend we are okay through things that we aren’t because maybe thats just how we cope? everyone copes differently. but the low’s are definatly not lower then the average teenager, every year of my highschool career someone killed themselves, someone overdosed, someone got in trouble for sleeping with someone they shouldnt have, people got pregnant, things happened. There were some very low points of my teenager years as a misfit. but your mistake is assuming these characters soared above their problems, they didnt instead they put on a brave face and dealt with their problems in their own ways.

    Sam? sam got wasted and slept with many a man, and she still believes for most of the story that she deserves to feel little and insignificant and charlie spends the whole time just trying to convince her that to him she was perfect.

    Patrick? he was GAY when it was not even heard of, when you couldnt say that would without getting the shit kicked out of you, his boyfriend had to get wasted to be with him, his boyfriend always hid who he was for fear of being killed by his father, and so in the end his boyfriend leaves him and how does he deal with it? soaring above you say? he got drunk every night and took charlie on dates and slept with random men in schindley park, He kisses charlie desperate to feel anything because all he is is numb.

    Brad? Star quarterback of the foot ball team, he was gay, he was beaten nearly to death by his father when his father found out. the poor man will spend the rest of his life pretending to be hetrosexual. that is a hell within itself.

    Candace? She perpetuates the cycle she watched her aunt go through of dating men who seem well meaning but in the end abuse her, it is only once she gets pregnant and charlie goes with her to get an abortion does she finally end the cycle. and she stays with her brother through all of his problems because he does the same for her. They’re close siblings.

    Bob? bobs problems arent realy addressed other then the fact that he is a substance addict who feels like he will never go anywhere in life, welcome to the club bob welcome to the club.

    Mary Elizabeth? Shes just like every teenage girl, shes just trying to find where she belongs in the world and though she seems rediculous through charlies eyes, comical most often, she is just expieramenting to find herself and everyone tries to support her.

    Alice? Alice has some mental problems that her rich parents wont address, she is most likely neglected and was probably raised by a nanny so she steals to get attention.

    So yeah sure, theyre floating above all their problems…. maybe if you knew what empathy was you would be able to understand what the characters were feeling.

    Charlie handles bullying the same way I was taught to, by ignoring it, but not taking it to heart because people are rude. and as for the beautiful night he spent with sam? he doesnt remember it because he blacks out due to the surpressed memories, it wasnt a beautiful night for him, its all just a blur.

    in the end the novel is about how your life affects others, how everything you do and say affects others, and how many people actually care about you. Its about learning to love yourself and learning that love doesnt equate abuse or belittlement. This book and movie they are fantastic truly. Maybe you should go back and reread the book and re watch the movie with all of this in mind, maybe you will get it.

    • Wade

      Hi :D

      First off, you did quite a job defending The Perks. Neato.

      I totally agree with ALMOST everything you pointed out. Almost. No offense, but I strongly suggest you read the book again cos it definitely says ‘August 25, 1991’ in Charlie’s very first letter.

      So if Charlie isn’t some sort of time-travelling weirdo, it is rather impossible for him to be a 70’s kid. Would give it a mental twist though. Downright ‘hackneyed’ …

      Anyways! How did you NOT notice the fact that The Perks is set in the early 1990’s? Especially when you wrote a friggin essay about it – phew, just sayin.

      There are more than just a few hints. The style. The tapes.

      In the movie, for example, during a makeout-session with Mary Elizabeth Charlie glares at a casette tape which reads ‘The REAL Ani DiFranco Mix’. DiFranco was only gettin started making music in ’89.

      However, I’m not trying to pull off a fight or something, just tryin to be helpful :D

      Cheers

  • SuzanneSmith

    I totally agreee with your review. It is right on. I could not finish watching this disorganized, unbelievable piece of garbage.

  • Wade

    Well. I actually enjoyed the book, but since you are mainly referring to the cinema adaption, I won’t be big about it. Just wanted to say that the movie may be a bit too flat in its attempts of dramatizing mental illness and stuff, but if it wasn’t, the whole ‘hopeful’ attitude of it would be crushed by the sheer ‘morbidly sad’ attitude Charlie is pulling in the books. Moreover – get over it, it’s fiction. What’s offensive about Chbovskys way of puttin things?