Before Thanksgiving, my wife and I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As I’ve been looking at the movie lineup this Christmas season, I’m realizing that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Not everyone will agree. Viewers seem to have liked it better than critics (which surprises me a bit), but I suspect that most of the Christian community would be uncomfortable with the film. (There are a few mild spoilers below, but you’re likely to forget them by the time you watch the film, so keep reading anyway).
I left the theater feeling somewhat uplifted, but Wallflower is a dark film. Its PG-13 rating comes from sexually suggestive scenes (mainly springing from the groups’ fascination with the Rocky Horror Picture Show), heavy themes (including sexual abuse), and drug use. It’s fair to say the film’s content is less than wholesome.
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the content alone shouldn’t determine the value of a work of art (otherwise we’d have to ban much of the Bible). It’s the way the film interacts with, speaks to, and frames that content that really matters. It is from this perspective that I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an excellent movie.
The “wallflower” in the story is a high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is aloof, alienated, and bullied. He is befriended by a complex, flawed, and wonderful group, and the film follows their struggles with growing up in their relationships with each other and with the world around them. All of the characters are broken in a number of ways, whether it be drug use, the lingering effects of sexual abuse, or struggles with homosexuality.
The most fascinating character is Charlie, who befriends all of these obviously flawed people and loves them unconditionally despite their oddities and dysfunction. Charlie is an excellent picture of love and acceptance. And though the group has its ups and downs, it ultimately finds hope and even healing.
For the characters in Wallflower, salvation comes through love and the conscious decision to enjoy life in the moment. Though faced with the unbearable darkness that often finds us in life, these characters find healing as they cling to the love they share and find meaning in the moments in which they feel most alive. The memorable scenes in this regard involve Sam (Emma Watson) and eventually Charlie standing up in the back of a pickup, arms spread and head back, listening to just the right music, as they speed through a tunnel. They are embracing the meaning of life as it hits them in that moment, and this meaning carries them through the dark moments.
There is much to appreciate about the hope offered in Wallflower. Love is indeed the answer. We do find deep and supernatural love through the people who accept us unconditionally. John even suggests that the love we feel from these kinds of people is ultimately God’s love for us (1 John 4:7, 11-12). Not only that, but we should also embrace the life that God has given us. Too often, we let life’s unbelievably rich moments pass us by as we focus on trivialities or get so caught up in finding a grand purpose that we miss the meaning and glory in the small things.
But we should also be cautious here. What Wallflower is presenting to us is nothing new. It’s actually a philosophical system known as existentialism, which seeks to find meaning in a defining experience in life. Who we are is determined by our experience with the world, not the essence of who we have been designed to be. Again, there are positive (biblical) elements here. But I find it fascinating that old philosophies (how many high school students have heard of existentialism?) keep popping up in trendier dress. (As a side note, there is also more than a hint of existentialism inherent in the YOLO mentality.)
I appreciate the humanity, the unconditional love, and the deep (non-superficial) enjoyment of life that The Perks of Being a Wallflower commends to us. But it’s important that we follow these themes far beyond the film. In the real world, these characters would remain broken. They would find these moments of healing, but they would continue break down. As we know, the only lasting solution to our brokenness is Jesus, who embodied to the fullest extent humanity, unconditional love, and a non-superficial enjoyment of life. Wallflower points us in the right direction, but as with all good things, the deepest expression of these truths is found in Christ.