The Perks of Being a Wallflower & Howzat!

December 1, 2012
Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 1.27.44 PM

It’s hard to believe some people actually look back on their teenage years with nostalgia. That terrible state, when one is half-way out of the chrysalis of puberty – not quite an adult but no longer a child – is an ordeal we have to overcome if we are to take our place in the world. It is a period in which we experience everything with an emotional intensity rarely recaptured in later life.

Teenagers form a huge target audience for the Hollywood studios, as they still flock to the movies to get rid of their disposable income. This has produced a procession of slob films by the likes of Adam Sandler, but there is also a place for a more intelligent coming-of-age story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower has its flaws, but by any standards it is one of the better attempts to capture the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence. It is based on a best-selling book by Stephen Chbosky, written as a series of letters in which the protagonist, Charlie, tells an anonymous friend about his experiences in trying to resume life at a school in Pittsburgh after a period of hospitalisation.

The book was published in 1999 by MTV, and had a huge impact with an audience who could identify no less with Charlie’s taste in books and music, than with his struggles to overcome his insecurities. Chbosky has written and directed the movie, so there can be no questioning the faithfulness of this adaptation. Although he claims the story is only semi-autobiographical, there is a lot of the author in Charlie. It seems there is also a lot of Charlie in everybody else, judging by the success of the book and the film.

The story begins with a fragile, introverted Charlie (Logan Lerman) trying to insert himself back into the life of a school already divided into tight little social groups and subcultures. It is a painful experience, but eventually he makes allies with two seniors – the extroverted, flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller), and his step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson).

As we get to know the characters we swiftly learn that Charlie has already had a close friend commit suicide. Patrick is gay, and in love with a football hero who has to conceal his true predilections. Sam’s sex life is a mass of mistakes and anxieties. They experiment with drugs and alcohol, make a cult of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and treat pop music as if it were the most important thing in the world.

David Bowie’s song, Heroes, is used as a touchstone for the friends, with its driving beat and histrionic lyrics. Some will find the use of pop music a little too calculated in its appeal to a younger audience, as it often stands in place of meaningful dialogue. But surely this is exactly the way we experience music at that age. David Bowie, the Smiths, or even – gasp! – Air Supply, seem to speak directly to Charlie’s psyche.

Throughout we are aware of some deep trauma behind Charlie’s mental instability. The truth emerges slowly, by means of flashbacks, keeping pace with his growing self-confidence. The bulk of the story, and the great pleasure of this film, lies in its blow-by-blow examination of Charlie’s relationships with his friends.

Charlie falls for Sam straight away, then has the painful experience of watching her go out with a prize jerk, while treating him as the valued friend who helps with her homework. It is one of life’s fundamental truths that the attractive girls at high school always have appalling taste in boyfriends.

The youthful cast are uniformly excellent, especially Logan Lerman, whose sad-eyed Charlie strikes just the right note; and Ezra Miller, who is no less convincing in ths role than he was in last year’s family horror flick, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Emma Watson has the added incentive of escaping from the dreaded Harry Potter franchise.

It is the quality of the acting and characterisation that allows one to ignore the fact that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is virtually a catalogue of every imaginable teenage scenario, both positive and negative. There are also moments of real comedy, as when Charlie’s brief stint as boyfriend to the garrulous Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) comes to a disastrous conclusion.

Charlie aspires to be a writer, and finds a mentor in Mr Anderson, the English teacher (Paul Rudd), who lends him books and provides a few words of wisdom. The inspirational teacher is an inevitability in such films, but Chbosky doesn’t overplay his hand. Mr Anderson’s big, profound line is: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This aphorism helps Charlie unlock part of his own personality, and understand Sam’s bad choices. He begins to see that wallflowers and extroverts are subject to the same pressures and uncertainties.

The supposed “perks” of Charlie’s introverted state are never clearly defined. One assumes it is because he carries no burden of expectation, unlike the popuar kids at school. He is an invisible presence, not expected to do anything, so when he steps out of the shadows to help Patrick in a fight it has a disproportionate effect on the way he is perceived. Status at school is hard won and fiercely protected, but when you are a wallflower, you are free to develop an inner life.

 

One wonders if anybody ever described Kerry Packer as a wallflower? With the cricket season upon us, and the hard men from South Efrika grinding out draws, I finally sat down to watch the new DVD release of Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War.

If one can get over the problem of television programs making programs about television programs, and the fact that nobody looks even remotely like the people they are portraying, Howzat! is much better than one might expect. The script, the plot lines and background music are geared to a prime-time audience, but one never feels like reaching for the fast-forward. It’s superior schlock – almost worth watching for the Zapata moustaches, body shirts and 70s pop songs.

The chief interest of the series does not lie in the changes Packer forced on the hidebound cricket establishment, but in the character of the man himself – a complex mixture of sensitivity and bastardry. He is the only figure in the series that is allowed to develop a second dimension, and the contradictions are almost irreconcilable.

When this series aired in August, many journalists went to a kind of Direct Referrals System, asking those who knew Packer about the accuracy of Lachy Hulme’s performance. The consensus was that Hulme did a good job of capturing Packer’s personality, apart from a bit too much shouting and cursing. Apparently the real Packer could impose his will on anybody without raising his voice.

Before watching this series I assumed it would be a hagiography of Packer, as the visionary who freed test cricket from its amateur status. It certainly begins that way, with the elderly gentlemen of the cricketing establishment in both Australia and England resembling characters from an Ealing comedy. Yet by the end of proceedings, we are left with a highly ambiguous picture of the media magnate.

I almost fell off my chair when Delvene Delaney (Cariba Heine), described Packer as “a lovely man”, but he is mostly shown as a supreme bully. The creators of this series even felt the need to invent a sensitive manager named Gavin Warner (Craig Hall), whom Packer could systematically brutalise.

Although Packer was obviously a cricket tragic, there is a suggestion that his most heartfelt ambition was to secure exclusive broadcasting rights. After all, cricket is a game peculiarly adapted to the requirements of commericial TV, with a natural ad break at the end of every over.

The whole idea for World Series Cricket came about when Paul Hogan’s agent, John Cornell (Abe Forsythe), realised the extent to which test cricketers were being exploited by the adminstrators of the game. Packer warmed to Cornell’s idea for an independent tournament, and took it even further because of his frustration with the stone-walling tactics of the Australian Cricket Board.

When the test stars of the world defected to Packer’s camp, there was initial public outrage. This created huge personal and financial pressures that were overcome largely through Packer’s bloody-minded determination to have his way. Although the inaugural season of 1977 was a disaster, by 1979 the crowds – and the advertising revenue – had begun to arrive. One of the key catalysts was the Mojo advertising jingle, Come on Aussie, Come On, showing how little it takes to fire the imagination of a land of cricket chauvinists.

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, USA, rated M, 103 mins

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, Australia, rated M, 215 Mins (2 episodes)

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 1, 2012