The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999 and released as a film in 2012. I am fond of coming of age films so this was a perfect choice for some solo movie-watching while my wife was out of town this past weekend. The movie had been recommended to me before and I’m happy I finally watched it.
Emma Watson’s barely passable American accent aside, the movie worked for me as a nostalgia vehicle. Funny, sweet, revealing, honest, dramatic without being too serious or dogmatic, and all under 2 hours: perfect for a night at home with the dogs.
After watching it, I jotted down some of the human needs the film highlights. These are universal needs, I believe, but some are specifically necessary for the journey one begins when healing from trauma. I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts.
To Need is Human
The film focuses on a group of well to do misfits who band together in a nearly adultless world of wealthy Pittsburgh. The protagonist is Charlie, a high school freshman not looking forward to high school. The viewer is made aware of some unknown traumas in Charlie’s life, but nothing is made clear until the film’s conclusion.
The first thing I appreciated about the film was Perks’ insistence on the need for connection. To survive and be our best selves we need others. Relatedly, we need understanding and unconditional positive regard. The film’s kids press against the boundaries of their lives to assure themselves of their support for one another. Charlie, in particular, begins his healing journey by finally having these needs met.
We also need novelty, especially when we’re teenagers. Even more than that, as kids we need to take risks. The Wallflowers take chances that rightly should be frowned upon by adults; that’s part of our job description! Yet, risks help adolescents feel alive as individuals and as a group member.
The Wallflowers exist within a world of self-acceptance and acceptance of difference. Supporting one another as they try to make sense of their world, these kids create fertile ground for personal growth. We cannot go it alone in this world. We need support.
Adults in the film, like any good teen flick, are ancillary. And yet, they are integral to these kids’ lives, particularly Charlie’s. Perks confirms that we need attention from our elders even as we seek, as teens, to distance ourselves from that attention.
The English lit teacher who feeds Charlie classic texts is necessary to his development of future goals, yes, but he’s more than that. He confirms Charlie’s presence. He witnesses Charlie’s uniqueness. We need to be seen. We need to be noticed even if that attention is negative, a strategy sometimes employed by those who experience neglect.
Looking specifically at Charlie’s trauma, the film underscores a few key healing ingredients. First, we need to share our pain. Details are not necessary. We do not need to relive trauma. We just need to know that when reaching for comfort there is someone there for us.
This also underscores a vital component of trauma work: we need to be believed. Perks did a nice job of this. Charlie’s admission of need was belated, as it so often is for trauma survivors, but when he finally revealed his hurt he was believed by his friends and his family. To be believed makes connection more likely.
Charlie initially denied his truths, a rational defense against the pain created by them. Ultimately, however, he realized that the effort and energy it takes to live in denial exacts too great a price. Why not find others who are willing to hold it with you? Charlie was lucky because he did find others he could turn to, hold onto, and rely upon. Not all of us are so lucky.
Also important in trauma work is normalizing one’s experience. Put another way, we need to identify with others. Believing that we are ok precisely because we are similar to others is crucial for all of us, but particularly important to those who have experienced trauma.
The film also affirms the importance of art and its ability to connect us to something bigger than ourselves. To fully heal, we need to transcend our limited and limiting experiences. The paradox, of course, is that we can more fully accept our finitude when facing the sublime. As Charlie reveals in a voice-over, when in the presence of beauty and communion with his chosen family, “And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”
We Can Be Heroes
Finally, Perks drives home one final point worth mentioning: we need heroes. The film is not subtle in this point, but neither is adolescence. The so-called tunnel song, which these hip kids (unbelievably) don’t know is David Bowie’s “Heroes,” is a song that addresses the powerful and limited nature of our historical existence.
We don’t have forever, but we can find pathways connecting us to something bigger than ourselves even, or especially, during turbulent moments in time. Under threat – and adolescence sometimes feels like an extended trial of existential threats – we can reveal ourselves and be fully present with Others.
Vulnerability is scary, but it takes guts to reveal ourselves to others. Heroes succeed because of their vulnerability, not in spite of it. And it’s important to remember that heroes don’t need to be superhuman. Heroes are our friends, family members, loved ones, elders, and sometimes even strangers. The most heroic among us also are the most human.
The infinite, revealing nature of connection – whether with others, with art, or with our own experience – it turns out, is a perk of being human. We can rise above shame and uncertainty when we feel connected, when we feel seen, believed, and understood. In connection, we can become the heroes we and others need in this world. “We can be heroes, just for one day.”