Mapping Contemporary Cinema

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012

Production Companies: Summit Entertainment, Mr Mudd Production
Distribution: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Summit Entertainment, Entertainment One,
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Executive Producers: Stephen Chbosky, Jim Powers
Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich
Co-Producer: Gillian Brown
Screenplay: Steven Chbosky
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Music: Michael Brook
Editor: Mary Jo Markey
Cast: Logan Lerman (Charlier), Dylan McDermott (Father), Kate Walsh (Mother), Ezra Miller (Patrick),Paul Rudd (Mr. Anderson), Emma Watson (Sam)
Running time: 102 mins.
Classification: PG-13 , Rated PG-13 on appeal for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens
Tagline: We are infinite
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Plot Charlie is uneasy about beginning high school but makes friends with two older students, Sam and her stepbrother Patrick. At a party Charlie unwittingly eats a cannabis brownie, gets high and discloses to Sam that the year before his best friend committed suicide. He also walks in on Patrick and Brad, a popular athlete, kissing. Charlie, in love with Sam, begins to try to find ways to show her how he feels. At a Rocky Horror Picture Show performance Charlie kisses Sam, upsetting her and her friend Mary Elizabeth, who he has been dating. Patrick recommends Charlie stay away from the group for a while, and the isolation causes him to sink back into depression. Brad is ‘outed’ and distances himself from Patrick who is attacked by Brad’s friends. Charlie forcefully intervenes, threatening, “Touch my friends again, and I’ll blind you”. Sam and Patrick express their gratitude to Charlie, and the three become friends again. Sam and Charlie kiss but Sam experiences a momentary flashback of his Aunt Helen who died a year earlier in a car crash, which he passes off as nothing. After she leaves for college, though, his emotional state deteriorates and his flashbacks worsen. Charlie is hospitalised and treated by psychiatrist Dr. Burton who manages to bring out Charlie’s repressed memories of his Aunt Helen sexually abusing him . Charlie undergoes therapy, recovers and returns home where he is visited by Sam and Patrick.

Film Note Following Ghost World (2001) and Juno (2007), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is the most recent critically acclaimed coming-of-age film by independent production company Mr. Mudd Productions. These films straddle mainstream and independent cinema, an area often classified as “Indiewood” (King). The rise of Indiewood can be traced to the 1990s, when the creation or acquisition of “semi-autonomous Indiewood divisions” by the majors, became popular practice (King 5). These divisions specialised both in the production and distribution of independent films, with notable examples including Miramax’s acquisition by Disney or Paramount Vantage by Paramount Pictures. The most successful Mr. Mudd production Juno, for instance, was funded and distributed by 20th Century Fox’s subsidiary, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Indiewood However, Tino Balio contends that in the last five years Hollywood’s landscape has changed yet again. Balio notes that “Hollywood entered the speciality market beginning in 1991. [But] The affair lasted [only] until the 2008 recession”(133) which was followed by the closing or downsizing of speciality divisions of the majors (115). At this time studios and private backers became less willing to take risks on indie films when they could invest in more reliable blockbusters. For instance, in the year after the recession, Disney announced that Miramax would reduce its film output from eight pictures a year to only three (Gleiberman). Similarly, Paramount Vantage’s production, marketing and distribution were consolidated by Paramount (Finke). Balio also discusses the recent growth of what he calls the mini-majors, with “a few independent companies aspir[ing] to attain mini-major status in the new millennium by producing and distributing mainstream movies” (144). In particular, Lionsgate Films, Summit Entertainment and Relativity Media. These production companies rely on hedge funds and private investors to support their films, favouring “mid-range and sometimes offbeat pictures” with independent sensibilities, thus allowing them to “carve a niche for themselves” (Balio 144). The mini-majors likewise suffered during the 2008 recession and were “forced to slash jobs and cut back on production” (Balio 145). In 2012, against this uncertain backdrop, Summit Entertainment acquired Lionsgate and The Perks of Being a Wallflower was funded and distributed by the post-merger organisation.
As well as a term to describe a film’s industrial background, Indiewood also defines a new, hybrid genre. Indiewood films strive to retain mainstream conventions to lure a wide market, but also include “markers of ‘distinction’ designed to appeal to [a] more particular, niche-audience” (King 2). The Perks of Being a Wallflower demonstrates the utilisation of both mainstream and ‘distinctive’ elements. It has a very simple, linear plot, making the film more accessible than some other unusually plotted works in the Indiewood cycle such as (500) Days of Summer (2009). It is relatable and features rising stars such as Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as well as more established actors such as Paul Rudd and Dylan McDermott. Despite these mainstream elements, the film retains its indie credentials through its considered mise-én-scene and its unconventional look. Like Juno, the story follows the ‘alternative’ group at school, a common element of many indie films. By recalling the early nineties, the costume and set give the film a cool, vintage milieu. Indiewood films like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and (500) Days of Summer often rely heavily on their references to alternative music. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower the soundtrack is full of counter-cultural references, including the use of music by David Bowie, Sonic Youth, The Smiths and others. Formal elements of the film also contribute to its indie aesthetic such as unsaturated colour, a lo-fi appearance and longer than average shot lengths which are distinct from fast-paced mainstream editing. This long takes make the scenes more poignant and allow the viewer time to really consider the image.

These aesthetic choices appeal to a particular social group. As Geoff King notes, by choosing to watch independent or semi-independent film rather than blockbusters, audiences are aligning themselves with subcultures that are associated with non-mainstream products (12). This idea is based on the argument that certain social-groups “buy into and exploit aspects of what is understood to be ‘cool’, ‘hip’ and ‘alternative’” (King 15). Indiewood films, therefore, go through a “commodification” process whereby the physical act of watching the film becomes a social asset; audiences gain “symbolic profit” by appreciating these films (King 16).

Stephen Chbosky’s decision to adapt his 1999 hit novel into a film was remunerative. Predictably, the followers of the novel transferred their reverence and love to the film. Cult followers “engage in […] celebratory enthusiasm, performative interaction” meanwhile the Internet and social networking is being used to facilitate this even more (Kuhn and Westwell 105). For instance, there is a Reddit page dedicated to fans who are going through the reading list Charlie is given by his English teacher. Similarly, there is a communal blog where real life ‘wallflowers’ can anonymously post diary entries in the same vein as Charlie (Stuff, 2013). As well as Indiewood and alternative films, popular mainstream films can also gather cult status, for instance the Harry Potter franchise. Hence, Emma Watson’s role as Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is viewed in relation to this doubled cult status.

Hermione’s transfiguration Considering the astounding success of the Harry Potter film franchise, it seemed likely that the lead actors would be haunted by the ghosts of their wizarding selves throughout their lives. In 2011 the Harry Potter series came to an end and Daniel Radcliffe began to pursue a career outside of the franchise by taking in a lead role in a stage production of Equus (2007). The show, which as serious in theme and featured full nudity, was a success and Radcliffe’s career continued to developed with a lead role in the stage production How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (2011) and the horror film The Woman in Black (2012).

The story is quite different for Emma Watson. In 2008, she branched out into animated work, voicing the character of Princess Pea in The Tale of Despereaux. The next year she started a modelling career with People Tree, subsequently moving to Burberry. In 2011 she appeared on the front cover of Vogue and appeared in adverts for Lancôme perfume. In retrospect, however, except for Ballet Shoes (2007), a TV film, and a small part in My Week with Marilyn (2011), Watson’s acting portfolio consisted solely of Harry Potter. The Perks of Being a Wallflower then became Watson’s Equus. Nearly all the reviews of the film revolve around Watson and whether she had successfully moved away from being Hermione Granger. When the trailer first appeared many were sceptical. Film critic, Stuart Heritage, reviewed the trailer and suggested there is “a very real chance they’ll be typecast for the rest of their lives”. He then satirically compared stills from the film to Harry Potter, noting similarities such as the fact that she is still playing “the schoolgirl who hangs around with two awkward boys”.

In his discussion of star images, Richard Dyer argues that “unlike characters in stories, stars are also real people” (20). For Dyer, star images are constructed by the amalgamation of various texts – tabloid stories, posters, websites and so on that construct a public image of the ‘real’ star (97). Compared to other Hollywood actresses Watson adopts a low-key lifestyle and her personal affairs have largely been sheltered from the public eye. For instance, in 2009 she enrolled at Brown University and expressed her wish to be treated like an ordinary student, with a relative absence of media coverage about her whilst she concentrated on her studies. As a result, and due to its huge cult following and popularity through fan sites, the source novels and the masses of Harry Potter paraphernalia in circulation, the character, Hermione, exists as vividly as, if not more so, than Emma Watson herself. The lack of ‘star’ texts surrounding her in the past makes it difficult to “conceptualise [her] total image as distinct from the particular character” she played for a decade (Dyer 88). Dyer comments that a “character’s name […] particularises him/her” and this is especially applicable in this instance (109). Dyer also argues that “it is very common for people to speak of a character in a film as having the star’s name” (109). In Watson’s case the opposite is true. Watson appears as herself in the comedy film This is the End (2013) where the entire cast (Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel and James Franco) also play themselves. Regardless, in one of the most popularized trailers they state in a video diary that “Hermione just stole all of our shit”. The humour here is derived from the notion that Watson is universally known as Hermione even though she is obviously not the character. A similar joke is made on fellow Potter star, Tom Felton, in Get Him to the Greek (2010), where he is referred to as his Potter pseudonym, Draco Malfoy.

Within the Harry Potter franchise, and due to the age of the characters, Watson had never been sexualised. As with Radcliffe’s full frontal nudity in Equus, Watson is sexually provocative in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, appearing in one scene in burlesque clothing. The criticism of this scene can be read as evidence of the strong cultural commitment to the Hermione character and Watson’s desire to resist it. As Dyer notes this “resistance may also act to expose the oppressiveness of the type” (Dyer 100). Nevertheless, although shaking off Hermione would prove difficult, the majority of reviews of Perks congratulated her on the success in shedding her Granger skin. Robbie Collin wrote that she “couldn’t be less like the uptight, bookish Hermione Granger”. Meanwhile, in reference to the film, even renowned gossip blogger Perez Hilton remarked “Hermione Granger is dead!”.
Since her appearance as Sam, Watson has further established herself as a legitimate actress. The year following the film she starred in The Bling Ring (2013), playing a superficial fame-obsessed teen. In 2014, she will play a lead role in the much-anticipated biblical epic, Noah (2014), directed by Darren Aronofsky. And she is set to take the lead role in the screen adaptation of Your Voice in My Head (2014), where she will play a writer struggling with bi-polar disorder. Whether she will still be compared to Hermione Granger after the release of these films is yet to be seen.

Humanising mental illness The news that another film depicting mental illness is to be released next year seems to correspond with a recent wave of offbeat films that deal with the subject matter, including Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Side Effects (2013). Whenever a new film portraying mental illness comes out, it brings a fresh wave of debate with it. Psychiatrist David Cox, argues that in Hollywood films sufferers of mental disorders are usually “conveniently dehumanised as useful monsters”. An early example here is Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960) who is portrayed as a knife-wielding maniac “in need of harsh restraint” (Cox). Films and mass media, as Cox also argues, are incredibly influential in terms of informing people’s beliefs, as evidenced in the fact that “people with hostile attitudes [towards mental illness] have cited films like Psycho as influences on their outlook”. Cox deliberates though, that since Hitchcock’s day, as people have understood more about mental illness and “public thinking has been changing […] so has film-makers’”. He suggests that the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) marked a turning point in representations of mental illness. Despite the praise the film received for being more progressive in its point of view, it still depicts the patients as sometimes uncontrollable and a danger to others and themselves. Even as recently as 2010, Hollywood has continued to “[exploit] the issue for sensationalised entertainment” in films such as Shutter Island (2010), where the patients of the sanatorium are depicted as demonic and dangerous (Lieberman).

Cox, however, recognises that the portrayal of mental illness in Hollywood has, over time, grown more “sophisticated as well as more sympathetic”. By this, he is referring to the wider range of specific mental disorders presented in films in the past two decades, including bipolar disorder (Mr Jones, 1993), depression (The Hours, 2002) schizophrenia (The Soloist, 2009) and autism (My Name is Kahn, 2010).

One of the key themes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is Charlie’s mental illness. There are references to him being ill throughout the film which he describes as ‘going bad again’. He often mentions seeing and hearing things. At the beginning of the film we see him taking medication, although this is the only time we ever see him doing so, it is an easy moment to miss. Whilst his illness is not explicitly named, one can assume he suffers from a form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) following the death of his best friend. Later it is revealed he also suffered abuse from his Aunt Helen as a young boy. Unlike previous films, which have demonised sufferers of mental illnesses, Charlie is depicted as an ordinary teenage boy with ordinary teenage problems, mental illness included amongst them. The allusions to his disorder are generally quite subtle throughout the first two thirds of the film, culminating in a violent episode when he jumps to the aid of his friend Patrick. This ferocious outburst does not make him less sympathetic, but actually enables him to re-unite with his crush, Sam, so they can “go be psychos together”.

Arguably, sympathetic portrayals of mental illness are not necessarily particularly accurate or helpful to actual sufferers. Whilst the films A Beautiful Mind (2001) or The Soloist are largely considerate towards their main characters who suffer from schizophrenia, these characters are, respectively, a mathematical genius and a musical prodigy, and both talents appear linked to their illness in some way. This may raise false expectations in real life sufferers, and lead them to find themselves “disappointing” in comparison (Cox). In contrast, Silver Linings Playbook has been praised for presenting bi-polar disorder in a “very normal, humane way” and occurring in a “regular guy” rather than a prodigy (Lieberman). On the other hand, some would contend that it is too sanitised a depiction of the disorder, as it does not include any depressive episodes, and only concentrates on a manic one (The Journal, 2013). It has also been criticised for being too idealistic. Bi-polar sufferer Pat (Bradley Cooper) is seen taking his medication only once in the whole film. Throughout the rest of the film, he seems to be wholeheartedly rejecting medical help. His eventual romance with dance partner Tiffany is ultimately presented as the most effective treatment. Deborah Brauser criticises this “all you need is love (without medication) to heal mental illness” attitude towards the subject. It is both unrealistic and unproductive, and leads people to believe mental illness can always be treated successfully without any medical help. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been similarly criticised for its idealism and love-conquers-all approach. We do see Charlie being treated in a psychiatric unit, and it is implied that he will attend at least one counselling session after his stay at hospital. However, the ending of the film suggests that his friendship with Patrick and love for Sam is what leads him to be more stable. We do not know whether he will attend regular counselling sessions. Even if we were meant to assume this, he does not make any reference to them when discussing his new found ability to “participate in life”. These criticisms aside, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an interesting, alternative teen-flick that has been a career changer for Emma Watson. And via the sympathetic, humanised depiction of Charlie’s struggle with mental illness the film shows a younger audience that psychological disorders are not something to be feared.

Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Brauser, Deborah. “Silver Linings Playbook: An Accurate Portrayal of Mental Illness?” Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

Collin, Robbie. “Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

Cox, David. “Hollywood’s Mental Block”. Web. 22 Jul. 2010.

Dunn, Sarah. “A Cult Novel: The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, Web. 11 January. 2013.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1998. Print.

Finke, Nikki. “Paramount Vantage Reorganizes Big-Time”, Web. 3 Jun. 2008.

Gleiberman, Owen. “The gutting of Miramax: Are studio specialty divisions headed for the dustbin?”, Entertainment Weekly. Web. 11 October. 2009.

Heritage, Stuart. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower – A Whole New Game of Quidditch”. Web. 13 Jun. 2012.

King, Geoff. Indiewood, USA. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2009. Print.

Kuhn, Annette and Guy Westwell. A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012: 105-6. Print.

Lieberman, Jeffrey A. “A Psychiatrist on Hollywood”, Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Mooney, Darren. “Does Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness help or hinder awareness”. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Written by Aniya Das (2014),  edited by Zsofia Szemeredy (2015), Queen Mary University of London

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Copyright © 2016 Aniya Das/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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