The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story about the infinite layers between a person's ego and a person's soul, and in that, the self-discovery and expression of the soul through the connection we have with each other. Much of this coming of age story is centered around being an outcast in a world of sameness, telling us of uniqueness, individuality, and that each of us has the potential to live our best lives if we can just get out of our own way. While the story is based in 1991, it relates very well with most demographics of the last 40 years, minus all the mix-tapes, as much of the message is universal to our human consciousness today.
The story was both written and directed by Steven Chbosky, for both the novel and the screenplay - and while generally, we’ll be focusing on the movie, for those interested - the book adds many dimensions to the story that we don’t see in the film. With that, here’s your Spoiler Alert, and here we go!
The film opens and closes with the infinity tunnel, the place which - to the main characters - seems to be a place of pure experience, an experience of the infinite. We see Sam and later Charlie experience this by standing up in the back of a truck, holding their arms out in joyous surrender to the expansive and seemingly never-ending tunnel. There is where we find Charlie's legendary line that became the Tagline of the movie “We are infinite”.
What’s especially amazing and curious about this is that it subtly explores the line between danger and conscious expansion. In the back of the truck, there is a notable sense of danger, as if the truck bounced or a strong wind blew through in the other direction, these kids could fall off the truck and bump their noggins! Yet, in the surrender of the will of the soul, it opens for this expansive experience that few are familiar with, which deepens their connection to themselves, feelings of freedom, and each other.
Now, in the book and a core part of the movie, is that the narrative is told through Charlie writing these letters to us, the audience, essentially providing a more intimate look at what’s going on inside Charlie’s mind and heart. Throughout the story, we peel back the layers of his nature and go deeper into resonance with his soul, but what's more so, we can see the various layers of his personality, both ego, and soul, that are steering the ship of his life.
And truly, one remarkable aspect of this story in particular is that every character feels like real people, which makes it easy for the film to connect well with anyone, as opposed to some of those other Hollywood highschools where everyone is 30… or constantly breaking into song.
But perhaps one of the challenges of going back to high school through this movie is that in a lot of ways, this is really accurate, which brings up all kinds of memories. For myself personally, there’s a lot of this story that just feels like… exactly my high school life.
Take this girl for instance… WHO HURT YOU!?!
But yet - if the story gives us any indication, is that each of us, with our multitude of layers, has this incredible bank of life experience, and all of us have been hurt in some ways, though rarely we show it openly. Throughout the film, we slowly bury deeper into the layers of these characters and explore the abuse that was experienced in childhood, and how they were able to overcome it, and grow as people.
So even as we watch, for those with the heart to explore it, even the people who are not so nice, like the girl in Charlies class, the teacher who calls his student nothing, or Brad and his friends - are all people who are suffering in their own ways, but just haven’t yet faced it within themselves. Perhaps one of the most significant lessons here is that… Hurt people hurt people.
So getting to know Charlie, we learn that he is a young, budding writer, making these journals and describing his life experiences… If we go into our ancient past - we find many legendary sages telling us that it is through our words that we create and steer our lives and reality, and what’s more so, that writing our words give them lasting power, which is why things like journaling and even vision boards can be so powerful both in creating new things in life, and developing wisdom and meaningful self reflection.
Charlie actively demonstrates this throughout the story by the words that he uses while he’s journaling. Early on, he writes about how his old friend and people he used to know don’t want to connect with him, and he says “well, i’m me, so who am I kidding?” Putting himself down and reinforcing the belief in himself that he’s not worth very much. Yet, he also writes that he wants to make new friends, because he wants to turn things around… and this very intention puts him on the path to actually make some.
Now, the first friend that charlie makes is really his teacher, Paul Rudd, however - charlies own shame prevents him from acknowledging this at the start, but throughout the story, Mr. Rudd essentially becomes charlies guiding mentor, providing him wisdom in the form of books, and supporting him in becoming an intelligent writer.
We are also introduced to Patrick. Patrick really represents the outspoken voice of those who are misrepresented in the world, and one who will stand up for those who are outcasts from society. When we first meet Patrick, he is drawing a beard on himself, pretending to be the shop class teacher, and the teacher comes in and calls him pattycakes. So Patrick says “Look, my name is patrick, so either call me patrick or call me nothing”. And the teacher calls him nothing! In the book, this plays out a bit differently, but we can gleam a lesson here nonetheless.
Because of this exchange, basically all of the kids in school refer to Patrick as nothing. However, by the end of the story we see the transmutation of this energy, as he puts “Nothing hates you” on the top of his hat - owning and even changing the energy, and demonstrating some wisdom and compassion all the same. Nothing hates you, there is only love, get it? Well, this probably went over most people's heads, which... might be a pun, because it was on the top of his hat.
Speaking to friendships, the final of the main trio in the story is Sam. Now the name Sam itself actually translates from Hebrew, meaning “God has Heard” or “Listen, Name of God”, and she plays a significant role not just in her own story, but helping Charlie to open his heart, and supporting him throughout his own self discovery. There is a lesson here too for all of us in the question of - who are we showing up for in our lives? The beautiful thing about Sam is that she really shows up for nearly everyone.
There is a subtle allusion to this in that the first time we see her, she has bright stadium lights behind, depicting angelic radiance. Yet at the same time, Sam herself represents the loss of innocence, for she used to have a reputation of getting drunk with all the boys and you can imagine where that train ends. We can see this in many areas throughout the movie, such as the red and black that she often wears, which falls in stark contrast to the pink wall and twinkly lights of her bedroom, and deeper still, with her story of being taken advantage of by her dad's boss at the age of 11, which twisted her own ego into becoming the girl with the reputation.
Yet, the quality of her soul allowed her to grow as a person - she is not defined by these aspects of herself anymore, moving beyond her past into a higher reality, and progressively does so even to the end, getting into penn state, sharing that things do get better. The tunnel scene, which we explored earlier, is a scene of soaring, flying, trust, and freedom, all things that help Charlie in embodying the same thing by the end too!
Having made some friends, Charlie is initiated into the group by attending his first party, where he experiences his first plant medicine experience, eating a cannabis brownie, and opening up to his new friends in a quirky way, where they essentially adopt him into the group. Welcome to the island of misfit toys, Sam says, after Patrick gives Charlie a toast.
One of the primary activities of this group is going to and participating in the rocky horror picture show. We spoke before about how the tunnel represents freedom, and this is another special place where freedom of expression reigns supreme and inhibitions go out the window. Honestly - these scenes deserve a shout out, both to Steven Chbosky for weaving this into the narrative in a really meaningful way, and also the actors for having such courage to get on stage in front of cameras and an audience of thousands, and perform the Rocky Horror Picture! Mad respect!
Now, speaking of freedom and big changes, a little while later, Charlie also experiences LSD for the first and probably last time. In addition to exploring Cannabis, later on Charlie also tries LSD. Cinematically, it’s a funny segway between taking the eucharist at church, and doing a tab - which shows a direct correlation to entering the depths of spirituality and all of the ways we can do this. But nobody ever taught Charlie that the best way to practice with psychedelics is in nature or with meditation, so he doesn’t have the best time. At one point, he ends up shoveling snow in a circle on the driveway for a while... Wait a second, THIS HOUSE HAS 6 GARAGE DOORS. WHAT?! … That seems a little excessive but okay.
Anyway, during this scene Charlie says “I just saw this tree but it was a dragon, then it was a tree again, it just lied to me”, and, I’m certain that this was probably unintentional, but when you learn about Yggdrasil, the norse edition of the Tree of Life system, we find that there is this dragon called Nidhogg. In historical Viking society, Nidhogg was a great and terrible dragon whose actions intended to pull the cosmos into chaos, and who also chewed the bodies of those who were guilty of terrible crimes. This is curious, because it relates to the undercurrent of darkness that runs throughout the story, as both Sam and Charlie, and even Aunt Helen were abused when they were kids. Again - probably not intentional, but Charlie seeing the tree become a dragon could be indicative of uncovering the darkness at the bottom of his own inner tree of life.
See, this part of the story really does begin the inward spiral that leads into himself to uncover the truth of his past, represented by the end of his LSD trip, creating a snow angel - representing his purification and rebirth.
Speaking to this undercurrent of trauma, and how it shows up for us often in life, is this idea that “We accept the love we think we deserve”, a key point made throughout as we see so many characters accepting love that deep down they know is only holding them back from becoming more authentic versions of themselves. Whether it’s Candace and Ponytail Derek, Patrick and his secret lover Brad, Sam and Craig, and Mary Elizabeth and Charlie.
The film really explores the idea that we often do things that we don’t want to do for the wrong reasons. Charlie dates Mary Elizabeth and hates it, he has nothing good to say about it at all, and yet he stays in it - why? Because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Even though it’s not a healthy relationship, Charlie can’t see past his own ego or what he’s creating by staying in the relationship. What's more so, even after the relationship ends, Charlie is still trying to make up with her because he feels bad, he feels guilty - and in this we even gain a subtle reflection for ourselves in how we weave our own traps of suffering…
We can see this expressed during one scene where he has this black dot on his third eye, a symbol of Ash Wednesday from his church, and Mary-elizabeth wipes it off. For much of the film, she seems to represent the spiritual ego, by her tendency to boast about spiritual concepts, but doesn’t really behave much like the buddhist she claims to be.
The story asks us to reflect on our own relationships and our lives in this same way, what are we doing, and why are we doing it? Are our actions in the highest alignment with our souls? However, we must also acknowledge that - as we go deeper, we see that Charlie’s guilt of feeling responsible for his Aunt Helen’s death, also stems into not being able to tell Mary Elizabeth the truth about how he feels. From this, we may discover within ourselves that all of our actions and feelings are interwoven together, far deeper than we know.
To the surprise of many people who first watch it or read the book, towards the end, Charlie goes through what resembles a dark night of the soul, a common thing during the awakening process, where we must face some aspect of our past, we must go through the trauma and the pain, in order to emerge on the other side of it and find healing.
Throughout the film, Charlie’s pain wells up within him in a number of ways, such as the fight in the Cafeteria. Later on, when he is taken to the hospital, he says something very interesting. He asks the doctor how to make it stop, how he can stop seeing everyones pain, that everyone is in pain, all of the time. Yet, the one thing he can’t see is his own pain. It reminded me of a bible verse from Matthew 7 - “First, remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Charlie can’t even see his own pain, but it’s so strongly there that it manifests itself as if he’s seeing everyone elses pain. It’s as if his pain itself has anchored him to this frequency of pain and suffering, but unless he faces the darkness within himself, he won’t be able to stop seeing it in others too.
As he faces his past, and comes to terms with it, he begins to let go and find healing. Something we all must do on our journey of reconciling our own pasts. Here we find another moving lesson, as Charlie lets go of his past, he must also let go of his friends, as they graduate and move on into new realities. Yet, not forgetting or losing their friendship, just adding some distance.
One final aspect of the story we must explore, is this very human moment where Sam and Charlie have a serious talk, and Sam asks… why didn’t you ever ask me out? Now - this might not be a fair question, because she was with someone for a long time and hey, maybe Charlie was just being respectful that she had a boyfriend… Yet, Sam reveals something very deep and moving, something we can all learn from. She says that she doesn’t want to just be someones crush, but that she wants someone to love her for who she truly is. It is a powerful and very heartfelt moment, revealing the deepest part of their characters, showing the soul from all of the ego, and for the characters expressing what they really want most, on a heart-centered level and a natural expression of the soul.
As the story comes to a close, Charlie discovers that we may accept the love we think we deserve but it is our duty to show people that they deserve more. We all deserve to fly through the tunnels, see “the light and everything that makes you wonder, with those who love most in this world, and realize that deep down, in all of our hearts... “We are infinite”!
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