'Perks,' YA film adaptations and adolescent mental illness

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 1:58pm


Summit Entertainment


Daily Arts Writers Will Stewart and Becky Portman discuss mental health in the coming-of-age comedy “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The movie focuses on Charlie, a high school freshman suffering from depression and anxiety after his best friend’s suicide and aunt’s death. After befriending a group of free-spirited seniors, Charlie begins to find his true self. “Perks,” based on the bestselling YA novel, is one of the most defining teenage movies documenting mental health. Stewart and Portman, however, differ in how they view this portrayal.

Hipster teens doing weird stuff: What's new?

High school stereotypes exist in movies because there is some truth behind them. Every school will have its fair share of cocky jocks, band-geeks and alternative theater types. If anything, this pseudo-hierarchal order of popularity is built into our culture. But these groups, in reality, are never quite as predictable as movies depict them to be. Sometimes, there’ll be that straggler impossible to pinpoint in one group, who seamlessly blends in and out of each social circle like a charisma-chameleon. Or, the band geek wins Homecoming King instead of the star quarterback, and everyone freaks out and questions the meaning of life. “In Perks of Being a Wallflower,” these cliches are challenged, especially the role of the handsome and athletic football star who also happens to be gay. 

Still, in most high school movies, the alternative theatre kids fulfill the role of just about every possible cliché. They listen to sad music, do drugs and, most importantly, are either severely anxious or depressed. Here, the problem isn’t the depiction of adolescent mental health issues, but rather always characterizing the same type of student as having “problems.” But, the truth is: not only alternative, edgy, “hipster” kids suffer from depression in high school. And, not every cliché hipster is depressed in the first place.

Mental health cannot be assumed within each social group based on preconceived notions. Certainly the aforementioned “hipster” enjoys their fair share of ’80s post-punk and has probably listened to “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths 100 times, but depression and anxiety are not unique only to them. Every year, thousands of teens with depression are undiagnosed and left to suffer alone. It’s essential that filmmakers and authors of YA fiction realize that other kinds of students are depressed, too. Maybe it’s more fun for viewers to watch the tortured artistic type, but depicting only one kind of student as predictably depressed paints an unrealistic, dangerous picture of mental health.

— Will Stewart 

We all want to find distractions from the humdrum of our boring, mediocre lives. For some, it is music, or maybe sports or perhaps even experimental performance art. Whatever the distraction, we all want something to keep us busy. For the rag tag team of friends in “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” their distraction is reckless, sometimes destructive, behavior. First we have Patrick, the unapologetically flamboyant stepbrother of the ever-complicated, ever-experienced Sam. Then we have the overbearing bossiness of Mary Elizabeth and the quiet, mousey Alice. Thrown into the mix is our dopey, adorable loner, Charlie, who has been through some intense, ambiguous shit. When they come together, this odd group of friends find distractions in their existence with the panache of the authors and artists of “Midnight in Paris.” Their nights are filled with adventure, they are down for anything and they probably smoke more weed than Snoop Dogg. There is something so relatable and authentic about their interactions. They use substances, experiences and friendship to numb the outside pressures of High School life.

No one’s life is perfect. Sam does not know how to accept love, Patrick performs through his life to make the bad stuff go away, Charlie pushes away his past trauma till it almost kills him and even the stereotypical quarterback, Brad, is in the closet about his feelings for Patrick. What “Perks” does is give voice to those who cannot voice themselves. We see the problems on screen that we can identify with, happening to characters we care about. This group of friends is hodge podge of their own issues, but they deal with them together, doing whatever they can to get through. Seeing characters’ struggles that we can relate to gives depth and authenticity to an otherwise silenced topic.

— Rebecca Portman

How they talk about mental health

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” ’s protagonist, Charlie, describes his own depression and anxiety as “being bad.” When he talks about avoiding these feelings, he says things like “if I get bad again.” Of course, anxiety is not good, but just because someone suffers from it does not mean they’re “bad.”

Charlie’s lack of empathy may make people feel like it’s entirely their fault for their mental health.  But, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” is not to blame for this issue. Rather, the American culture that perpetuates vicious ideas — like seeing a therapist is a sign of weakness — is the true culprit. The whole concept of stomping down those less fortunate than oneself is inherently American (I’ll leave this to be discussed by those much smarter and more qualified than myself). The movie shows a bleak reality for too many people trapped in a vicious cycle of negative self talk and deep insecurity.

“Perks” does a fantastic job of creating a well-rounded character who also happens to suffer from severe anxiety. Movie characters like Charlie are capable of improving the social climate, especially when exposed to younger audiences. However, when he actually begins having panic attacks, the screen goes black and skips ahead a few moments. Viewers don’t actually see him during his most intense moments of anxiety, which I think is a huge loss. The purpose of the screen blacking out attempts to visually recreate Charlie’s perspective during these moments, but it feels like the director is tip-toeing around potential controversy.

— Will Stewart

Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in lives, in people, in individuals. We, as viewers, might see mental illness as a disease that can be cured with a stint in the psych ward or some medication, but mental illness is an ongoing struggle. Many films do not attempt to capture coping with mental illness as a daily endeavor, but “Perks” manages to tell the story of Charlie’s struggle through a lens of moving forward.

While films like “Girl, Interrupted” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” depict the actual institution and experience of dealing with the worst of mental illness, “Perks” delves into Charlie’s life after tragedy (losing his friend to suicide, coming to terms with his childhood trauma, etc.) and moving on. “Perks” illustrates Charlie’s reintroduction into daily life after an incident merely dubbed as “bad” whose ambiguity furthers and fuels Charlie’s rocky road to recovery. That is the realness of it though, that mental illness is not just felt in mental wards of white-walled hospitals, it is felt in suburban Pittsburgh, it is felt on college campuses like ours.

Charlie is a case of PTSD, reliving traumatic memories in his mind, in constant fear of being guilty and responsible for a tragic event. As his mind does loops around the recollections of his past, he himself spirals into blackouts. As the camera spins at odd angles and the screen fades to black, the viewer is just as surprised as Charlie when they find out what happened. The void Charlie experiences during his blackouts is to be filled with the imagination of the viewer. This allows for the audience to empathize with Charlie and his emotional trauma on a more intimate level.

— Rebecca Portman


“Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a heartfelt and inspiring high school movie. I don’t really think it says as much as it could about teenage depression and anxiety, but the movie’s real intentions are to show self discovery, love and friendship.

— Will Stewart

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” is an endearing and honest portrait of a fresh-faced teen struggling with major emotional trauma amidst trying to make friends, get through high school and tell the girl he loves how he truly feels. I think that “Perks” does a great job of highlighting the often overlooked aspects of mental illness and reinforces the fact that mental illness does not define you. 

— Rebecca Portman