The last movie we watch in the Psychology of Film course I teach every spring is “class choice” where the students to pick a movie that has been important to them. There is always a lot of variety, but we are always able to find a movie that has been meaningful to at least several of the students. Recent past choices include Forrest Gump (1994), Hoosiers (1986), and Shawshank Redemption (1994). This year’s choice was a relatively recent film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and I have the sense that it is one that is going to be popular among (some) college students for a while. (The same is true of the book; in a rare situation, the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky, was able to not only write the screenplay but actually direct the film version.)
When watching Wallflower, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Breakfast Club (1985), a teen movie from my generation (I graduated high school the year the film was released). Most obviously both films feature teenagers struggling with their individuality in the context of cliques and other social pressures that can be stifling. There have been many movies featuring teen-agers that have come out in between, but they tend to be broad comedies, horror films or straight-out serious dramas. The Breakfast Club comparison seems apt because while Wallflower does veer in some very serious directions, it balances these scenes out with humor and the joys of adolescent friendship.
The story begins as Charlie (Logan Lerman) is about to start high school. We learn early on that Charlie had spent some time in a psychiatric hospital the previous summer; however, the details of his traumatic back-story are only slowly revealed through the course of the rest of the film. Charlie is introverted and brainy and has difficulty fitting in with his classmates until he is adopted by a close group of seniors who consider themselves to be outsiders in the high school hierarchy. The “misfit toys” are led by step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), and they build an especially strong relationship with Charlie. This being an angsty teen movie, these characters have their issues as well. Patrick is continually frustrated by his relationship with his closeted popular jock boyfriend, while Sam is trying to break a pattern of relationships with boys who do not treat her well.
Developmental and clinical psychologists are sometimes critical of movies like Wallflower that seem to give the impression that all adolescents are on the verge of psychiatric hospitalization, substance abuse, suicide, abusive relationships, etc. They are quick to point out that broad-scale studies have shown that the proportion of diagnosable disorders is no different among adolescents than other age groups. This is good to keep in mind. There is a danger of media exploiting the struggles of youth, often using a prurient and/or self-righteous tone.
On the other hand, Wallflower is a drama, which means that things are likely to get kind of dramatic—problems are exaggerated and emotions are inflated. This is true of adult dramas, why not teen dramas? And even if modern adolescence may not be the inferno it is sometimes portrayed as, it is still a difficult time. Nearly anyone who is a parent or at least has a memory of high school can attest to that.
The core of Erik Erikson’s classic formulation of adolescence as the most important time of identity development still holds. Contemporary personality psychologist Dan McAdams at Northwestern University emphasizes in his book The Stories We Live By that it is during adolescence that we really begin to construct coherent, lasting stories about they kind of people we are, what we believe and what we value.
I would argue that stories like the one told in The Perks of Being a Wallflower can help young people work out their own stories, just like The Breakfast Club helped me and my generation (actually the film still retains a following among the current generation). Going beyond simply having a redeeming message that is tacked on the end of the film, Wallflower and The Breakfast Club maintain a consistent tone that respects and even likes the teen-agers that are being portrayed. This is not always easy to do when it comes to adolescents, but occasionally Hollywood gets it right.
(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770 )