The Perks of Being a Wallflower: The Mix Tape Review
An explanation: This movie relies heavily on the theme of mix tapes in the telling of the story. Mix tapes are presented as cultural artifacts and as ideas and as expressions of emotion. Indeed, anyone who was alive and over the age of ten during the time the story takes place (maybe late eighties? Likely early nineties) will recognize the mix tape as all of these things. Thus, I am presenting my review of the movie in this same format. I will review four aspects of the movie: characters, soundtrack, plot & presentation, and ambiance. Each of these aspects is assigned a song on the mix tape review, and each song is pulled from the soundtrack. I'm choosing the songs basically arbitrarily, but I will do my best to justify my choices.
A further explanation: This is likely not a standard movie review format, and as I didn't take even one film theory course in college, I am not writing in film review jargon. I am just a girl who enjoyed a movie and wants to share my enjoyment of it with the world. If that bothers you, look elsewhere. There are lots of other reviews of Perks of Being a Wallflower, many of them written by folks much smarter than me.
Song One: Come on Eileen, Dexys Midnight Runners, Characters
The main character of this movie is a high school freshman named Charlie. By all appearances Charlie comes from a close, loving family. His parents’ marriage is intact and they seem to make a comfortable living. He is the youngest child. His brother, a high school football star, is away at his first year of college, and his sister is a junior or senior in high school.
But not all is well in Charlie’s world. It is intimated that he has only recently recovered from a pretty severe mental breakdown, though the causes are not specified until later in the movie. Charlie has no friends and is painfully shy.
Early in the school year Charlie meets two seniors, Patrick and Samantha (Sam). Patrick and Sam are step-siblings and are as outgoing as Charlie is quiet. He is immediately fascinated with them both, but especially Sam. He crushes on her instantly.
But here’s the rub: it would be so easy for the story to have made the wrong move here. It would have been simple to make it a tale of older-and-wiser-and-more-popular-kids-rescue-the-awkward-freshie. And in a shallow sense, that would even have been satisfying. Who doesn’t love a good rescue story? But life isn’t that simple, and neither is this movie.
All of the characters in Perks of Being a Wallflower are perfectly imperfect. They each have their own semi-hidden struggles. Patrick is gay, and comfortable, and mostly out, but he’s in love with Brad, the football star who is so closeted it hurts. Brad and Patrick are an item for months before Brad can even be physical without also being drunk. Even after that, they can’t be seen together at school. Brad simply won’t allow it.
Sam has a reputation left over from her freshman year, during which she was invited to all the upper class parties because she would sleep with any guy who got her drunk. She also describes herself as “bulimist” because she loves bulimia.
Am I making these characters and this movie seem dreary? Because they’re not. The characters struggle, to be sure. They’re teenagers. They’re supposed to. That’s what the movie is about. But they’re not down about it. They have good books, good music like Come on Eileen and the tunnel song (Song Three, Plot & Presentation), and each other to get by. And they do get by.
Song Two: Asleep, The Smiths, Soundtrack
As I stated earlier, music is central to the storyline in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the soundtrack reflects that. The main characters are teenagers, but they’re not just any teenagers. Emma Watson’s character, Sam, refers to their group as the island of misfit toys, and that’s really a perfect description. These are teenagers on the fringe: they’re closeted homosexuals, depressives, zine-printing punks, rich girls who shoplift, vegans, Buddhists, survivors of sex abuse and kids with eating disorders.
And they all, every one of them, believe in the healing power of good music. They gorge on music. They dance. They cry. They sing. And they make mix tapes for one another. The melancholy song I chose for this section of my review appears in mix tapes three times during the movie.
Song Three: Heroes, David Bowie, Plot & Presentation
This is the part where I talk about the presentation of the movie, and it’s also the part where I might sound a little less than ecstatic about it, because the presentation was disjointed. For example, there is a scene from Christmas Eve (which also happens to be Charlie’s birthday). His family eats cake and then they all go together to Christmas Eve mass. They line up to take communion. We see each individual placing the wafers in their mouths, and then they get to Charlie, and he puts a hit of acid in his mouth. Then suddenly he’s at a New Year’s Eve party with his friends, tripping his ass off.
I was all: wait! What day is it? Christmas Eve? New Year’s Eve? Did he take acid at church with his family on Christmas Eve and then again with his friends on New Year’s Eve? Or did he really take communion at church and the director just thought that would be a cute way to segway to his use of acid on New Year’s Eve? I figure the latter is probably closest to the truth. But the whole situation left me confused.
Also, I’m not trying to be nitpicky. I get the use of disjointed presentation. I especially (I think) understand it here, because the main character suffers from blackouts due to his emotional disorders. It furthers the storyline. It creates an ambiance. And I can appreciate that. I just wonder if this is an example of a device that worked better in the book. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon, and I look forward to finding out.
Now, on to plot. I have nothing but praise for the movie’s plot. It’s gorgeous and wonderfully executed. The characters are real, they’re alive with real struggles, and they interact in intelligent, meaningful ways. Kudos to the actors for pulling this off.
There’s a scene in the first half of the movie: Charlie, Patrick, and Sam are driving together somewhere. A song comes on the radio that none of them recognize (it’s Heroes by David Bowie) but all of them instantly love. Sam declares that it’s the most perfect song ever recorded. Their truck enters a tunnel and Sam stands up in the truck bed and rides that way—arms outstretched—throughout the tunnel. The song blares from the radio. Charlie says he feels infinite.
For the rest of the movie this song is referred to as The Tunnel Song. All of them research it but none of them finds it until the very end of the movie, when Sam puts it on a mix tape she makes for Charlie.
Do you get how big that is??? How multilayered? Let me add a few of these !!!!! for emphasis.
This movie is set in the early nineties, before itunes, youtube, google, and shazam. The internet existed, but it wasn’t a part of life for the average teen. Back then when you heard a song that hit you at your emotional core all you could do was hope that your friends already knew its name or that the DJ of the radio station you were listening to would come on right after and tell you what it was. If neither of those things happened, all you could do was keep listening for it and wait. It took time and effort, just like relationships and connections take time and effort, and just like healing takes time and effort. And you know what? All of those things: connections, meaning, and healing, are all made richer for the time and effort put into them.
Just like mix tapes.
Sam, Patrick, and Charlie discovered the Tunnel Song together in a highly charged emotional moment. That made it theirs, and it made it more special. And the fact that Sam put in the time and effort to find out the name of the song and then put in on a mix tape for Charlie cemented all of that.
Song Four: Don’t Dream it’s Over, Crowded House, Ambiance
I don’t have a whole lot to say here that hasn’t already been said. I was truly impressed by the way in which all of the principal actors in this film managed to pull off both the seriousness of high school life and the levity of friendship. At one point in the movie Charlie describes himself as both very happy and very sad, and watching the movie, that’s the sense you get from all of the main characters. The ambiance is serious, and it’s dizzying, and it’s silly, and it’s deeply sorrowful. How does it manage to be all these things at once? I don’t know. But it does.
There’s a line at the end of the movie. Charlie says it: “This moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive.” When I heard that line, I burst into tears. I’m tearing up now, just thinking about it. That line is both intensely happy and hopeful and intensely sad. How does it manage to be both? I don’t know. That’s masterful ambiance.