Sunday, April 14, 2013

Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it is one of the best depictions I have ever seen of an adolescent's struggles with trauma and grief. The protagonist is Charlie, played convincingly by Logan Lerman as a quiet teen entering his freshman year. He is utterly friendless at the start of the movie, and the details of his past experiences are only gradually revealed, bit by bit.

Here's what I loved about the movie, and why I think all psychiatrists should see it: Charlie is never treated like a psychiatric label. In fact, no terms like "depression" are used at all in the movie. He, like most of the patients I see, has been through some pretty terrible things. He suffers from a mix of sadness, grief, guilt, anger, and dissociative tendencies,  yet he probably does not fit neatly into one specific DSM category. Most importantly, his life is not defined by those symptoms. He likes music and writing, he has hopelessly fallen for a girl named Sam (Emma Watson), and he is a loving brother to two older siblings. The best scenes involve him becoming friends with the school's band of misfits, led by Sam and Patrick (Ezra Miller, in a wonderful performance). We clearly see how these relationships give Charlie joy and a sense of identity.

I also thought the depiction of Charlie's psychiatric hospitalization was very well done. The movie takes place in the early 90's, shortly before the DSM-IV era of psychiatry. Back then, the average length of stay on child and adolescent psychiatry units was on the order of weeks to months, rather than the under one week stays that are so common today. Though the movie does not show how much time elapsed in the hospital, it does give the sense that Charlie was moving into his room for a while. The psychiatrist Dr. Burton (Joan Cusack) appears only briefly, but even so, her concern for Charlie comes through. She is not running down a symptom checklist, spewing psychiatric diagnoses, or pushing pills; rather, she tries to engage Charlie as a person first and foremost, hoping to gain his trust so he would feel safe sharing his most hidden secrets.

The story was certainly clich├ęd in places: There's the obligatory scene of getting high for the first time, and Charlie's English teacher (Paul Rudd) gives Charlie his treasured copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Are there no other books about teenage alienation? Also, Sam seems remarkably well adjusted given her chaotic backstory. Never once did the movie convince me that her character was someone who would have trouble getting into Penn State.

Still, the brilliance of the actors and the compelling story makes this one of the great coming-of-age tales.