The Perks of Being a Wallflower came at a very interesting moment for millennial/Gen-Z cusp high schoolers. Based on the popular 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky and adapted by Chbosky in 2012, Perks arrived a decade ago during the height of “the Tumblr era,” when teens at the time like myself gravitated to the website’s curation of hipster trends and nostalgia-inflected aesthetics.
On an average day in the early 2010s, chances were high you would come across a crying Logan Lerman GIF, an image of the Perks cast sitting on some bleachers, or a screenshot of one of the film’s iconic aphorisms, “In this moment, I swear we are infinite” and “We accept the love we think we deserve,” on your feed.
Even though the overuse of those quotes and pictures ultimately sapped them of their poignancy, Perks signaled an important turning point in the cultural conversation around mental health. Amid a rapidly changing social media landscape, lonely teens who yearned for connection could identify with Perks’s honest, delicate exploration of mental illness, trauma, and social isolation.
Of course, Perks deserves to be remembered way more than just as wholesome, twee online fodder. In contrast to the raunchy, male-oriented YA fare that dominated much of the 2000s, the film introduced an alternative take on teen angst for contemporary audiences, harkening back to the nuanced work of John Hughes but with a more introspective touch. It was a funny and tender coming-of-age drama that celebrated the fleeting nature of adolescence — as much as it probed the complex, underdiscussed issues that came with it.
Considering its relative critical and commercial success as well as its influence on the string of thematically similar films that followed it (namely 2013’s The Spectacular Now, 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars, and 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) it’s worth looking back on just what exactly makes Perks so special and formative.
Set in Pittsburgh in the early ‘90s, Chbosky’s soulful, piercing tale of teenhood followed the titular wallflower, a shy yet sharply perceptive bookworm named Charlie (Lerman), during his first year in high school. Feeling invisible and excluded by his peers, he develops a friendship with gay, fun-loving senior Patrick (Ezra Miller) and a crush on Patrick’s sweet stepsister Sam (Emma Watson).
Under Patrick and Sam’s encouraging wing, Charlie begins experimenting with LSD and weed, attending The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and pursuing his aspiration of writing. While indulging in these discoveries, Charlie wrestles with the psychological reprecussions of his best friend’s suicide the year before and a repressed history of sexual abuse from his late Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). Lacking closure from both experiences, Charlie struggles to confront his own pain, even as he attempts to rehabilitate everyone else’s.
In addition to its bittersweet emotional template, what immediately sets Perks apart from the average American coming-of-age story is that Charlie is not a typical American teen male protagonist. He possesses an endless wealth of empathy and compassion, a humility that isn’t disingenuous, a maturity that isn’t annoyingly precocious, and musical taste that may come off pretentious on the surface but feels very true at that age, of wanting to absorb everything that made you seem cool or moved you in some way. (Who among us hasn’t had a Smiths phase?)