Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - A Movie Review

This slim book is THE most popular book I ever put in the hands of a high school student in my 30 years of teaching.  After finally getting around to watching the movie adaptation last night with my adult son, who is home on a visit from out of state, and two of his best friends from high school, I realized my thoughts on the importance of this book are long overdue.
I had to dig back to my old analog (notebook) reading journal to find the date when I first connected with this book.  I knew I had discovered it at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore during the summer of 1999 when I was there for a week-long AP teachers workshop.  Stephen Chobsky is from Pittsburgh and the book was on a small shelf labeled Local Authors.  I think the cover caught my eye.  I brought it home, read it in July and wrote in my reading journal that I thought it was ” . . . going to be the Go Ask Alice of a new generation of readers . . .”
When I returned to school that fall, I was finally teaching AP English.  I clearly remember waving the book and singing its praises to my students.  No one had heard of it.  I had to do a lot of cheer leading to get my one copy circulating.  But then a funny phenomena struck!  A dELiA’s store opened in the fairly new shopping mall in our town.  And on a few of the circular clothing racks throughout the store were piles of BOOKS!  Books – in the most popular local shopping magnet  for young girls!  Suddenly, girls were buying copies along with the latest trendy t-shirts and bringing them to school to pass around.  And they were sharing them with BOYS.   The Perks spark was ignited.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel, narrated by Charlie who is a freshman at a Pittsburgh high school in the 1990s.  His mental health is fragile, as he is fixated on the untimely death of his aunt with whom he was very close.  As he begins high school, he is friendless and on the fringe – a wall flower – until he is welcomed into a band of senior misfits which include Sam and her step-brother, Patrick.  The peaks and valleys of their senior year – homecoming, SATs, college acceptance letters, prom and graduation – educate Charlie almost as much as the stabilizing influence of his beloved English teacher, Mr. Anderson, who recognizes Charlie as a kid who can find solace in books.
Perhaps that is the single most potent charm of The Perks of Being a Wallflower for an English teacher.  It is a book that you can hand to almost any student.  I label them lovingly, because  every high school classroom has at least one of every type – honors kid, goth kid, stud athlete, closet gay, band nerd, cheerleader, loner.  Each type would hand it back to you with a comment about how much he could “personally relate” to it. It became a gateway book.  If it is possible that a small but potent reading experience can turn a reader on to the stronger stuff, this book made kids whisper at my desk, “Do you have anything else like this I could read?”
Over the last decade, I listened to countless oral book reports, collected numerous mix-tapes, evaluated PowerPoint presentations and book journals written about this novel, but there is no rubric for the truth.  This book smacks of the reality of high school.  Like Catcher in the Rye, it is a book you want a student to find on his own, and read without a grade attached.  But high school kids don’t grow up surrounded by books anymore.

I am normally incensed when original book covers are replaced by glossy movie star images,  (The Great Gatsby with Leonardo will give me the shakes) but this time, I don't mind.  Probably because Stephen Chobsy, a respected filmmaker, adapted his novel for the screen and directed the film.  The characters are flawlessly brought to life by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, whose faces grace the new book cover.

The soundtrack of pop songs matches the spirit of the 90s and the Come on Eileen dance number, where Charlie looks on from his wallflower perch is pitch perfect.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show scenes were filmed at The Hollywood Theater in Dorman, Pennsylvania where Chobsky, himself,  saw the movie as a teenager.
The scene in the movie where the perfect song plays on the radio as Charlie's perfect girl appears to fly above the problems of life standing in the bed of a Ford pick-up truck was filmed in inside the Fort Pitt Tunnel.  Chobsky calls this scene a symbolic rebirth - the ultimate symbol of transition.
So, watching the movie last night with three grown kids who bonded in high school and have stayed close for six years since made the movie even better for me. They talked about how awkward high school is for everyone.   It is a marathon run through a dense fog of hormones, relationships and power plays.  The kids who seem best at it are sometimes the least prepared for the challenges of the real world, and the wall flowers are often the ones who turn up at 10 and 15 year reunions and shock everyone with their totally together lives.  The best anyone can hope for in high school is a few true friends who will buoy you up when you are down and fly with you when you are soaring.
My son talked about being a freshman in marching band.   Some senior boys took him under their wings and convinced him to play the tuba his sophomore year  (Ben, Jeff, Tim and Tres - wherever you are - I still thank you.) They were smart, funny, older boys from my AP English class who turned drudgery into fun.  They helped him transition into other new friendships.  Sophomore year he started hanging out with the two guys we watched the movie with.  They buoyed each other up when they were down and still fly around together.  They all read the book at various points of high school.  They each still have the book today.
We decided the movie is The Breakfast Club for a new generation of kids.  I would have watched it again as soon as it ended.  And I admit to having a few tears in my eyes.  The classic quote is as true for adults as it is for teens -
This is my first year as a retired English teacher.  I have read a few books in the last year I would love to wave in the faces of my students.  I miss sharing books with kids. I probably bought a half dozen copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the years since 1999.  I probably loaned them all out and never got them back.  I can't find a single one in the house today and I miss seeing that book on the shelf.  I miss the classroom when I recall that as a teacher, I had the power to be a life-changer.  I got to hand a kid a book.


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SMS Jokes said...

Very nice book, completely fell in love with Charlie. People of all age groups can read this. I don't think older people would feel a disconnect with the content. It's sure to remind one of the teenage years and for those who are in their twenties, even they would connect with some of the philosophies outlined in the book. Thumbs up!

Brittany said...

I was in your 1999 AP English class and while I never read this particular book that year, many of the books I did read for your class are still among my favorites - Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver specifically. This blog led me to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I totally fell in love with it. So, thank you for continuing to lead me to good books 13 years after AP English and for all that you did to expose students to great books!
Brittany Dziedzicki (Kopkas, in high school)

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