Pin It
The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, 2012
The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, 2012(Film still)

The Perks of Being A Wallflower at 10: Why this film means so much to Gen-Z

As the coming-of-age drama turns ten, Halima Jibril explores the movie’s enduring resonance among young people

It’s generally agreed by film historians and cinephiles alike that the Golden Age of Cinema was between 1910 and 1960. This period produced movies like Casablanca, Rebel Without A Cause and Some Like It Hot; its influence can’t be questioned. But I’d argue that we’ve just witnessed a more significant period in cinema not too long ago. Cast your mind back to the early 2010s – between 2012-2015, specifically – when we witnessed the Golden Age of Teenage Cinema.

From the likes of LOL (2012), The Divergent and Hunger Games franchise (2012-2015), The Spectacular Now (2013), The Fault In Our Stars (2014), The DUFF (2015) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). Cinema was inundated with coming-of-age stories filled with grief, loss and love in ways that were overwhelming and new to those who were just entering teenagehood, but at the same time, relatable and comforting. But the film that defined that period was Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower, which turns ten today in the UK.

The coming-of-age drama, based on the 1999 novel of the same name, follows a 17-year-old boy called Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, who starts writing to an unnamed friend who he believes will listen and understand what he’s going through. He chronicles his first year of high school, relatably counting down the days till he’s free. Through his letters, we follow Charlie as he suffers from clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from the sexual abuse he experienced as a child, and grief, as he’s just lost his best friend to suicide. While the film deals with heavy topics, we also see Charlie love again, not just romantically but platonically. There wasn’t a teenager on this planet who didn’t want their own Sam (played by Emma Watson) and Patrick (played by Ezra Miller) after watching this film.

There is such a moral panic when it comes to teenage media that deals with “adult” themes, particularly themes to do with mental illness. We’ve seen this panic in TV shows and films like It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Skins and most recently, Euphoria. These pieces of media are said to romanticise mental illness and make being unwell look glamorous and cool, leading to real-world problems for young people. The Perks of Being A Wallflower has been in and out of this discourse for years. But the truth is, media like this is essential (to some extent) for young people. One of the main themes in The Perks of Being A Wallflower is loneliness; as each character goes through different trials and tribulations, this is the defining thread that holds them together and draws them to one another.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower made many young people feel less alone. You can see this on fanfiction sites like Wattpad, where thousands of young people would write books filled with letters titled ‘Dear Charlie’. In these letters, young people would reveal their deepest and darkest secrets to Charlie, discussing their eating disorders, thoughts of self-harm and suicide ideation. I don’t believe The Perks of Being A Wallflower made teenagers think mental illness is cool; instead, it gave them space to wallow and express how sad, difficult, and strange it is to be a teenager.

Our news editor, Serena Smith, who was 14 at the film’s release, wholeheartedly agrees. “Lots of people blame these types of media for young people’s declining mental health, but The Perks of Being A Wallflower didn’t make my sadness worse; I was just mentally ill and going through a lot at the time. The film gave me space to sit with it, and that’s what I needed at that point.” Likewise, Safiyat Jibril, a postgraduate student who was 13 upon its release, was happy to find a film that explained her feelings before she had the words to describe it. “In the film, we aren’t told that Charlie has depression, the words aren’t explicitly said, but we know something is wrong with him. He was so intensely sad, and I remember feeling exactly the same. Existing just felt like too much, which was the same for Charlie.”

Charlie became a comfort character for a lot of young people. Writer Mimi Sameera believes that as a teenager, Charlie was the kind of character she needed to see on TV: “By seeing his mental health journey, I was able to confront my own. My family and culture don’t really raise any awareness or provide insight on mental illness, so it was honestly a big eye-opener.” Librarian Nura Shan, who was 16 when the film came out, still goes back to watch the film semi-regularly. One reason for this is that its portrayal of mental illness is not over the top. “Teen trauma (in the media) always has a bit of romanticism in it, whereas Charlie’s mental illness is not portrayed like that. It’s a part of him, but it’s not his whole story.”

Nura is right; mental illness is not Charlie’s whole story, and it’s not the film’s entire premise either. Writer and creative Zara Afthab tells Dazed that “even though the overarching storyline is devastating and deeply moving, it wasn’t what made me love it as a teen. Instead, it was Charlie’s relationships with his friends and how they communally consumed culture and media together. Music was found through mixtapes and listened to on vinyl, or shared on long drives, words written on typewriters, books were read and swapped on worn-out paperbacks, and no one scolded the other for wearing out the spine. And let’s not forget Mary Elizabeth’s fanzine on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Those things felt so magical, finite, and real.”

The tagline of The Perks of Being A Wallflower is “We are infinite”. It’s the very last thing Charlie tells us, or more specifically, tells his unnamed friend. He reminds us that our lives aren’t just one sad story; that we are not defined by that one unfortunate thing that happened to us, but that we are boundless, limitless and filled with endless possibilities. That’s everything a teenager desperately wants to believe and needs to hear. This is why The Perks of Being A Wallflower has become a cult classic and is so beloved by Gen-Z.

So don’t forget (no matter how cringe it may feel) to blast “Heroes” by David Bowie and wind down your windows whenever you reach a tunnel – my sister and I do it whenever we’re in the car together. In those moments, we are not only reenacting our favourite film scene but a significant part of our teenagehood. Zara puts it best: “The Perks of Being A Wallflower makes me miss being a teenager. Everything was horrible then but in a beautiful way. Now everything is just horrible, in a real way.”