This is Not a Review of Perks of Being a Wallflower - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

We watched THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, an odd Oscar contender about coming of age in the 90's. It's well made, with lots of lovely songs. Emma Watson is fetching and lovely as the wide-eyed toxic pixie dream girl. There are some nice walk-ons from Dylan McDermott and Paul Rudd. There's some great tunes in there -- I suspect a big chunk of the budget went to getting "Heroes" and "Come on Eileen." (Which I remember hearing when I was growing up in the 80's, but people are allowed to listen to old songs, after all.)

It's an odd period piece because there isn't much of a reason for it to be a period piece, except it's got a closeted football player, and coming out in high school was much harder in the 1990's than it is now. (In fact it reminded me a lot of my high school days.) But I suspect the main reason it's set in the 1990's is it's based on a novel about growing up in the 1990's, which is written by a novelist who grew up in the 90's. And, probably, the filmmakes like David Bowie and didn't want to have to put "Poker Face" on the soundtrack. I guess everyone has the right to write about their high schools days; otherwise they'll be writing about some other generation's high school days and getting it wrong. As if.

But I would like to say a word about scripts and novels about young men who Want to be Writers. This is a really annoying genre. They inevitably star some slightly passive kid with a hidden trauma (= "depth") who is picked on by jocks for no apparent reason -- he's entirely innocent. He has a crush on a pretty girl. Eventually she falls for him, too. Even if, as in this case, he's a freshman and she's a senior. Because senior girls so often date freshman guys.

If I never see a movie or script or novel about growing up as a writer again, it will be too soon. This is just taking Write What You Know too literally. Come on. Use your imagination.

Please don't try to make your character seem more compelling by informing us that he's a writer. That only makes him more compelling to other writers. Yes, I love you guys, too, but most people don't write, don't have any aspiration to write, and rarely even read. Which is why we're in showbiz, after all.

Instead, just give your character a unique point of view. That's what makes a writer interesting, actually: having things to say that no one else could say. It makes you have to dig up actual insights for him or her to have. It's probably more compelling if the character says those things in conversations, or even in voice over, than if he or she writes them down; seems more immediate that way.

Even better, have your main character express their unique point of view by doing things that other people don't do. Then you have a really compelling character.

And you're proving you were meant to be a writer all along. Which writing about a young writer does not really do.

8 Comments:

It only bothers me when the Sensitive Young Writer is told by his friend/mentor, "Someday you'll write a book." And guess what? It's THIS book! Imagine that!

Ditto when it's a young filmmaker, especially when the movie follows the plot points of whatever movie poster is on the protagonist's bedroom wall.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 1:28 PM  

The biggest comment I ever got was from Kenneth Koch: "Alex, I'm terrified you're going to become a successful TV writer." Which, as a poet, he regarded as a Fate Worse Than Death.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:49 PM  

If you're suggesting that senior girls don't hook up with freshmen guys, then you're also suggesting Anthony Michael Hall's story arc in "Sixteen Candles" wasn't realistic. Do you hear what you're saying?

By Blogger David, at 2:05 PM  

I did see that documentary, but bear in mind, that was the 80's. Sex was looser then.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:32 PM  

"I did see that documentary, but bear in mind, that was the 80's. Sex was looser then."

Could have fooled me!

By Blogger Tim W., at 2:58 PM  

Growing up not far from Pittsburgh in the 80s/90s, it is not surprising that I loved "Perks." I didn't really view it as a "Charlie wants to be a Very Important Writer!" kind of story. It's tangential at best to the interpersonal drama between his character and Sam and Patrick. They could have made his life aspiration to be an accountant and it wouldn't have diminished what the movie was really about, i.e., finding yourself and coming to terms with all those things about you that make you think you are separate from others

By Blogger Chris, at 8:41 PM  

I couldn't agree more. The movie keeps stacking the deck for our protagonist. Wants to be a writer? Occasional bad behavior explained by a trauma he was entirely blameless for? Winsome, handsome, and sweet natured? Victim of bullying and yet also loved, admired, and/or lusted after by virtually every non-bully character in the movie? He is basically the teen boy coming-of-age version of a Mary Sue. I related enough to the character's experiences to be moved, but found him utterly unconvincing as a character, a totally faultless adolescent martyr hero. Which, considering the autobiographical tenor of the book and film--if nothing else, making him a writer instantly turns the character into an author/director surrogate--comes off as pretty self-serving.

All that should be disqualifying, but damned if I didn't still like and admire the movie. I guess execution and tone made the difference for me. Even the cliched jumpcuts to the boy's 'trauma' were so skillfully edited that I was moved.

By Blogger Bobo, at 8:44 PM  

I hate the Wants to be a Writer subgenre. Anyone who has spent any time covering script submissions hates it as well. Here's the thing - MAKE THEM SOME OTHER CREATIVE ARTIST WANNABE. You know, maybe something visual? Like a painter. Or a musician. Or a sculptor. Or a mixed media retro-creationist (I assume that's a thing). It's just so easy to take the same issues and transplant them into another type of creative individual and make it much more interesting. They can still have dreams, and heroes, and everything else, but it won't reek of the same desperation and it won't be something everyone else is doing. I'm working on a pilot where the "me" character is a chef - he can still be creative, he can still want a better job than he's got, but when he goes home to cook he's externalizing emotions. Writers don't externalize anything except words on a page. And that's how it should be.

By Blogger samuel.x.killer, at 12:39 PM  

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