You might think you’ve seen it before. A coming of age story set in a high school. It is a common enough narrative. They usually come in either over the top comedies based on stereotypes, or hyper-emotional melodramas- not like any high school you’ve ever been in. Perks, along with a short list of others, is a good exception to this trend.
The film takes a serious look at freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he tries to make his way through school, while also trying to understand family dynamics and the impact of his past, especially the suicide of his friend in middle school, and on who he is and the many questions this raises. In the process of just trying to stay out of people’s way he is befriended by Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother, Patrick (Ezra Miller). He is then drawn out of his wallflower role in school and celebrated for who he is and wants to be.
Perks is based on the 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky and was published by MTV. The book was well received and gained a widespread audience and cult following. More than a decade later, Chbosky was asked to direct the film version.
So what makes this story draw such an audience? I think part of the answer comes in the authentic way the story comes across. Authenticity is a tricky thing. Skeptics of the story have written that the characters are rather phony and improbable. But the fans see themselves in the characters and they trust the storyteller.
There is something about the struggle to belong and the weight of loneliness that Charlie expresses that rings true to the audience. As Charlie finds a place to belong, this helps, but in the end it will take more than that. He has to come to understand himself, and this is a hard project for anyone, but maybe more so for a freshman high school student with trauma at every turn. In dealing with trauma, this film avoids the easy slide into sentimentalism, it tells a dark and deep story, that hangs on real hope. And where there is hope, there is a way to move forward and to forgive, as you learn to love yourself.
- Greg Veltman