The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Year of Release: 2012
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes, drug and alcohol use, mild sexual content.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: No spoilers here! Carry on!

I’m a community college instructor. I spend many hours a day with eighteen and nineteen year old “young adults.” So each time I’ve answered “no” to the question “but you’ve read/seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower, right?” I’ve been met with a considerable amount of shock and confusion. Fortunately, some friends of mine in Pittsburgh remedied the problem last week when they gifted me a shiny new copy of Perks for my birthday. The movie, not the book. (Yep, I’m not going to make it through this Catch Up without committing multiple cardinal sins, one of which is watching the film adaptation before reading the book.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower might be called the Catcher in the Rye of our generation with its loveably awkward and impressionable protagonist, smattering of life-changing experiences, and mentoring English teacher figures (Paul Rudd’s Mr. Anderson brings the kind of soft touch to this film that Miss Honey does to Matilda). Charlie (Jack & Bobby’s Logan Lerman) is a high school freshman navigating new territory after a vaguely alluded to stint in the hospital. His older sister isn’t much help in showing him the ropes, as she is much more wrapped up in her boyfriend, “Ponytail Derek,” and Charlie eases his loneliness by writing in a diary to a friend he hasn’t met yet.

Enter Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), a hip step-sibling duo of seniors who recognize Charlie’s isolation and include him in their social gatherings. The bond between the three friends grows tighter and tighter as the school year progresses, and it is gradually revealed that each character faces his or her own inner demons. Charlie frequently grapples with memories of his deceased Aunt Helen, particularly her car accident. Patrick is gay, and fooling around with a closeted jock named Brad (Johnny Simmons). Upon giving Charlie a typewriter for Christmas, Sam reveals that her first kiss was with her father’s boss, and kisses Charlie so that his first time is with someone who cares about him. Needless to say, Charlie is head over heels for Sam (who has a boyfriend) at this point, but his shyness prohibits him from making his feelings known. Instead, he rather passively ends up with Sam’s demonstrative friend, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman).

Whenever I talk to friends or students about abuse of any kind – verbal, emotional, physical – I always catch myself saying something along the lines of, “It happens more often than you think it does.” The Perks of Being a Wallflower charmingly captures the rocky transition from child to teenager to college freshman, but the film’s (and book’s) universality applies in a much deeper sense. Beyond raging hormones and new experiences, each of Perks’ characters is guided by what The Breakfast Club’s Allison Reynolds would deem “an unsatisfying home life.” They are discovering, as are many of this generation’s adolescents, that it is not so easy to separate ourselves from our parents’ problems, that despite our best wishes, we often “accept the love we think we think we deserve.” Though a few scenes are pretty unsettling (the cafeteria fight between Patrick and Brad is particularly hard to watch), the ultimate message of the film is reassuring without being trite: even though all of us feel like a Charlie at times, we can get through just about anything with a little help from our friends. And, you know, David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Which I will definitely be blasting the next time I cruise through the Fort Pitt tunnels.

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Adore

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Adore
Year of Release: 2013
Rating: R for sexual content and language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoilers: Much review. Such spoilers. Wow. (Read on, but stop at the last paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends.)

What do you get when you take the incestuous coming-of-age premise of Flowers in the Attic, subtract the abusive grandmother, and move the setting from an old gothic mansion in Virginia to the cerulean waters of New South Wales? Adore, apparently.

Naomi Watts and Robin Wright star as lifelong best friends Lil and Roz, who live in neighboring HGTV Dream Homes on the eastern coast of Australia. The film opens at the funeral of Lil’s husband, Theo, who leaves the two women (along with Roz’s husband, Harold) to raise their young sons, Ian and Tom. In Theo’s absence, Lil and Roz encourage their sons to cultivate a relationship with one another, which deepens as the years go by.

In a time splice to an ethereal Phillip Glass-esque piano piece (Australian composer Christopher Gordon is actually responsible for Adore’s score), Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) paddle into the waves as boys and emerge as men: strong, chiseled, glistening men. Their mothers watch newly spellbound from the shore, noting that their surfboarding sons now “look like young gods,” which is a totally normal observation to make about your children, right?

After a comment like that, it’s easy to see where the rest of the film is headed. Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), whom Roz couldn’t be less interested in if she tried, announces that he has just accepted a drama professorship in Sydney. But Roz laments that this change would mean moving away from her cozy seaside utopia. No one is prepared to give up the long nights of wine, cards, and provocative dancing, and so poor Harold’s is left questioning the nature of Lil’s and Roz’s relationship and trekking to Sydney solo. Additionally, the unattached Lil must ward off the advances of John Locke from Lost (seriously, how is that not Terry O’Quinn? the actor is actually Gary Sweet) who eventually assumes that Roz is her partner. And though the two women aren’t sleeping together, Harold and Saul aren’t entirely missing the mark.
The longstanding tenderness of this “modern family” coupled with the lean, tan stuff of Harlequin Romance fantasy comes to a head one night when Ian dares to make a move on Roz – and Roz reciprocates. Tom, who watches Roz sneak out of Ian’s bedroom in the middle of the night with her jeans in her hand, puts two and two together quite quickly. A few days later, Tom manages to seduce Lil and reports his vengeful conquest to Roz, earning him a furious slap.

This is where the group dynamics get particularly interesting. Lil and Roz confront each other, but the discussion isn’t at all what you’d expect: there are no angry words exchanged, just the brief recognition that “it needs to stop.” Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t, and Lil and Roz finally admit to one another that they’ve never felt happier. Nothing – not even affairs with each other’s sons – can shatter this bond of sisterhood.

Critic Christy Lemire called this film “good trash,” and I get where she’s coming from. The scenery and eye candy are close enough to savor, while the melodrama remains at a safe distance because it’s not happening to us. But as someone who has always been drawn to material that examines a close-knit group under a microscope (think Virgina Woolf’s The Waves, Sheila Kohler’s Cracks, and yes, even Flowers in the Attic), I thought there was more here than just fantasy pap. Despite the luxurious high that these affairs bring Lil and Roz, both women recognize the need for their sons to find “real relationships” with women their own ages while combating their own fears and realizations associated with aging. When they finally put a stop to things, Roz transitions back into a stern maternal figure whom Ian now resents, further blurring the line between mother and lover.

Things go south after a number of years, of course, but not among this group of four. As Adore concludes with the recycled image of Lil, Roz, Ian, and Tom sunbathing on their old dock in the middle of the Pacific, it becomes clear that after the ruin of their conventional lives, all they have – for better or worse – is one another.

Thirteen

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This Catch Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

Thirteen
Year of Release: 2003
Rating: R for drug use, language, self-destructive violence, and sexuality.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: None.

I seem to be falling into a “ten year anniversary” pattern on this blog already with the 2003 movies, but I won’t lie – it’s always fun to look at films released when I was a teenager through the sage old wisdom of my mid-twenties (ha!).

Thirteen is a movie about teenagers but arguably not for them, due to the veritable platter of adult material. You name it, it’s probably in here: marijuana, LSD, alcohol, sex, oral sex, shoplifting and other forms of stealing, self-harm in the form of cutting, and of course, thongs. Written by Nikki Reed and Catherine Hardwicke (both of recent Twilight fame) and directed by Hardwicke, Thirteen is based on actual events from Reed’s troubled adolescence. Evan Rachel Wood stars as our tragic heroine Tracy Freeland; Reed stars as her influential “bad girl” best friend, Evie.

Tracy’s transformation in a mere ninety minutes of screen time is nothing short of heartbreaking. At the beginning of the film, she is a bright yet understated teenage girl who, when she’s not working on a school project, enjoys writing poetry and palling around with a young Vanessa Hudgens (yes, that’s her!). Upon meeting “regulation hottie” (thanks for making this a part of my vernacular, Mean Girls) Evie Zamora, Tracy rededicates her young life to impressing the popular clique, furiously tossing her stuffed animals into a wastebasket and bemoaning her “Cabbage Patch” wardrobe. Before long, Tracy ditches the jelly bracelets for tongue rings and the lowest of low-rise jeans, steals purses to go shopping on Melrose, and spends her evenings dropping acid at the park. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Tracy’s middle school could easily be transplanted into any suburban U.S. town, but the rest of the the film’s Los Angeles backdrop is just as much a catalyst to Tracy’s downward spiral as the manipulative Evie. The shops on Melrose Avenue are blindingly decadent (Red Balls’ storefront alone is an exercise in sensory overload), looking more like adult novelty shops than clothing stores for teens. After skipping out on a family movie night with Tracy’s mom and boyfriend, the girls run wild on Hollywood Boulevard a jungle of…well, jungle juice, hoards of teens freestyle rapping on street corners, and curtained dressing rooms perfect for stealing a torrid quickie. During the day, the city’s beachy coastal colors are distorted, muted, almost as if there’s a blue filter over the camera lens. At night, the camera movements are jerky and disorienting, increasing in lopsidedness and Tracy digs herself into more and more trouble.

It’s painful not only to watch Tracy disappear into a hell of her own making, but to watch Melanie Freeland wrestle with how to save her daughter amid all of her other troubles. Melanie (in what is easily my favorite performance from Holly Hunter and one that rightfully scored her an Oscar nod) makes ends meet as a high-school dropout with a home-based hairstyling service, regularly attends AA meetings, and, much to Tracy’s chagrin, repeatedly slips back into an on-again, off-again relationship with recovering drug addict Brady (Jeremy Sisto). She is a character as vibrant and complicated as the L.A. scenery around her, manufacturing her own brand of “cool” with her love of “entertainment streak” highlights and her penchant for tracking down thrifty second-hand clothes for Tracy’s new wardrobe. Roger Ebert described Melanie as “clueless but not uncaring,” and I’d also tack “terrified” onto that list of adjectives. Tracy’s behavior is foreshadowed during an early scene when she reads one of her deeper poems out loud to her mother (“It scares me a little,” Melanie admits) and intensifies during a heated standoff in the kitchen when Tracy repeatedly slaps at her thighs and taunts, “No bra, no panties,” as she backs the wide-eyed, disbelieving Melanie into a corner. I’d also argue that part of Melanie’s “cluelessness” is the freedom she extends to Tracy and her brother out of guilt, for she can’t buy Tracy the designer jeans she dreams of, force her ex-husband to cough up the child support, or afford anything beyond “$1.50 a square foot floor.” Tracy’s problems are many, but Melanie is the reminder we all need that even the most selfless of mothers aren’t without problems of their own.