Personal Lens: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

(Note: This is not a review or analysis of Stephen Chbosky’s 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but rather a reminiscence about what the film once meant and continues to mean to me as a young queer person. A previous, slightly shorter version of this piece can be read here. Happy Holidays! – L)

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the cinema in 2012, I was 17. I was just about to begin my senior year of high school. This would be my first time in the same school environment for more than one year at a time, the first time I hadn’t struggled in school to the point of a breakdown. I was happy, but I wasn’t celebrating; I was mostly worried about the fact that I didn’t have any friends.

To set the scene further: in 2012, I knew I was some kind of queer; for at least the past year I had been mentally describing myself as questioning. I thought I was a strange boy who wanted to look like Greta Gerwig for some reason, and I was pretty much exclusively into women but really, really didn’t want to call myself “straight.” For the past two years, I had been spending most of my time with my then-partner, who lent me flowy scarves and nail polish and let me be “the girl in the relationship.” Unfortunately, but this time that had resulted in two years of catcalling from strangers and harassment from my father, so these privileges were confined to stolen moments in bedrooms. I no longer wore the scarves to school. I didn’t know I could be a girl. I hadn’t come close to figuring myself out.

After a year each at two different weird alternative high schools in my dead-end Southwest Washington state town, I’d lucked my way into a program that would allow me to take all my classes at the local community college. The advantage of this was that school no longer felt like gears were grinding together in my head all the time; the disadvantage was that I put a lot of distance between myself and the friends I’d just managed to make by that point. As a result, my senior year of high school basically felt like a freshman or sophomore year, socially.

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I viewed it as being mainly a story about a wonderful group of friends. I caught a glimpse of what I had been missing, holed up in a room with just one other person for the last two years. In between crying fits, I decided that when school started, I would make sure to do whatever I could to make friends.

Two weeks later, I started drama class.

Two months later, I had friends.

I was drawn to a classmate who I’ll call C. C loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and saw it at least three times in the theater. C was tall, flamboyant but gentle, and reminded me a lot of Patrick as specifically portrayed by Ezra Miller. C also wore makeup, earrings, and heels in class. I was enthralled, but also intimidated, so we didn’t talk as much as we should have. I didn’t know what to say to someone who was so clearly like me in a way I felt that I couldn’t be. C seemed to be a gay boy, something I was pretty sure I was not, but nevertheless…

I also got to know a classmate I’ll call M, and fell for her pretty thoroughly. We’d meet up in the library and discuss our writing ideas and the movies we liked; we’d study together and talk for hours. She told me about the queer-themed TV projects she wanted to work on, and inspired me to think about writing again in a way I hadn’t for a while. Even though my partner wanted us to have an open relationship and encouraged me to go for it, nothing ever happened. But I thought about her a lot. If it had been the ’90s, I probably would have made her a mixtape. (Like Charlie, I was that kind of a dork.)

Not everything about Perks is true to my high school experience. I was too oblivious to know where most of the parties were happening, too anxious to do any drugs, and I’ve still never been to a Rocky Horror screening. There were no cafeteria fights, no truth-or-dare drama. The feeling, though? The emotional fabric of this movie is 100% spot-on. Watching it again now, I felt like I was back. Not just in high school, not just with those friends, but back in a previous version of my head. Old pangs, old traumas, an old body.

After graduation, I lost touch with most of my classmates. M moved to Florida before I could say anything about how I felt; I was too shy to ask for C’s phone number. Plans fell through, I retreated back to my room and had a slow and painful breakdown that would ultimately span the next few years. I fractured. I have no concrete reason to believe that I suffered the kind of childhood abuse the protagonist of Perks has (all I have to go on so far when I process my traumas are suspicions and feelings), but I know the exact feeling being represented in the climactic sequence.

My breakdown played out in slow-motion, commencing two years before it plateaued, but eventually I started finding my way out, and into a more hopeful future. I realized that I wasn’t “just a boy with weird gender stuff going on” after all, that I could in fact be a girl, that I was in fact not straight (whew!). I finally got out of that dead-end town. I started confronting old demons. I’m in the process of confronting some of them still, but now I know who I am, and that makes all the difference.

M and I are very low-key friends now– she’s visited occasionally, and we’d text. We seem to talk less every year, and that’s okay. My crush on her lasted a long time before it finally faded and I moved on. When my shell started cracking and I began to rise from the ashes, she was one of the first people I came out to, and one of the first people to be unwaveringly encouraging and supportive of the real me. I still don’t know if she’s ever seen this movie, but the camaraderie it evokes will always make me think of her.

Last year I found C on Instagram.

…As it turns out, we’re both girls, after all. It seems so obvious now. I find myself thinking, a lot, about all the things I could have said to her.

I wonder if she still loves this movie.

I still do.