Separated at Graduation?


I'd like to discuss this film about high school.  It's about a withdrawn young man with brown hair and eyes.  He's wrestling with some emotional issues that make him feel detached from his peers.  He's incredibly smart and creative, and he knows all the answers, but keeps them to himself unless drawn out by a concerned teacher.  One of his most concerned teachers is an alumnus from another high school film; Clueless, but this film is much more serious.  His loneliness is alleviated one day when a winsome young woman (played by an actress named "Emma") comes into his life along with her established group of friends.  They shake up his world, giving him a taste of creative validation, but it's really the girl that has stirred his soul.  Unfortunately, he's afraid to act on his feelings for her and she gets into a relationship with a douchebaggy older guy.  Meanwhile, our soulful but troubled young man is dealing with family related issues that threaten to shatter his world.  In the end, graduation serves as a catalyst to bring his ill-ease about the world, himself and the girl to a place of fragile hopefulness, symbolic of the growth that we all must go through.

This movie is The Perks of Being a Wallflower - 2012
Written & Directed by Stephen Chbosky, from his book
This movie is The Art of Getting By - 2011
Written & Directed by Gavin Wiesen

Aw, she must depend on him.

Our soulful yet troubled young man in "Perks" is Charlie.
Starting out, we know that he is a freshman in high school who has no friends.
He's earnest and hopeful, but a recent stay "in the hospital" has him feeling self-conscious
about sharing himself with others.
Our soulful yet troubled young man in "Art" is George.
Starting out, we know that he is a senior in high school who has no friends.
He's sullen and withdrawn, primarily because his teenaged morbidity has convinced him
that life is without meaning or hope.
Charlie wants to be a writer.
He compulsively writes letters to the "friend" he one day hopes to have.
George wants to be an artist.
He compulsively fills his school books with doodles.

The Justin Bieber Hair Club for Young Men

Charlie's turning point comes when he makes a conscious, deliberate effort to befriend Patrick,
a flamboyant and rebellious senior from his freshman shop class.
Charlie admires his courage and free-spirit.
George's turning point comes when he makes a conscious, deliberate effort to take the blame
for smoking on school grounds, thus rescuing Sally from getting caught.
George admires her rebelliousness toward school policy.
Through Patrick, he meets Sam, Patrick's step-sister.
He's instantly smitten.
Though strangers, his act earns him a friend in Sally.
He finds her fascinating.

Sam has a somewhat troubled history and regrets her past promiscuity.
Sally has a somewhat troubled mother and hints at a history of promiscuity.

Sam comes with a ready-made group of friends, including Patrick, Mary Elizabeth and Alice,
all of whom are players in the local Rocky Horror Picture Show,
and one of whom will become a romantic entanglement.
It's through these friendships that he finds validation for his talents.
Drink and drugs are frequent companions.
Sally comes with a ready-made group of friends, including Will and Zoe,
and she also facilitates George making friends with Dustin, an artist and graduate of their school.
One of them will become a romantic entanglement.
It's through these friendships that he finds validation for his talents.
Drink and drugs are frequent companions.

Charlie struggles to express himself in an academic setting,
but flourishes with the encouragement of his English teacher.
George makes little effort to express himself in an academic setting,
and profoundly disappoints his encouraging English teacher.

Remember when he was older than her?

Ultimately, it's issues related to his home life that shatter his sense of stability in the world, but it's this schism that serves as a catharsis, leading him to an uneasy but hopeful view of the future.

Now, you could certainly come away from this (so far) with the impression that these were roughly the same movie, or even that one of them was a "rip-off" of the other, and that's certainly an impression I've done little to discourage (so far).  My first thought, once I'd seen The Art of Getting By was that it may indeed have been a cut-rate attempt to cash in on the momentum of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a la Hercules/Hercules Reborn), which was considerably better hyped.  "Art" came out (in fairly limited release, from the looks of things) a full year before "Perks" (which put "Art" on Netflix by the time the other came out), so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  On the other hand, "Perks" was adapted from a popular Young Adult book published in 1999, so I'll leave it to you to form your own opinions about their similarity and temporal proximity.

There are, of course, many differences, and it's those differences which define them... strongly.

While both Charlie and George are intelligent and withdrawn, the have some deeply seated differences in their reasons for this behavior.

Charlie has endured some major losses.  Most recently, his best friend from middle school 
has committed suicide, sending him into a tailspin from which he is still recovering
at the start of his entry into high school.  That has also stirred up some issues realted
to the death of his beloved aunt, earlier in childhood.  Additionally, his older brother, 
a popular football star, has left home to start college.  He has some very solid reasons
for feeling vulnerable and isolated at this pivotal time in his life.
George, meanwhile, has a poorly established story for his situation.
His parents divorced years prior and only the most token of efforts is made
to connect this to his issues.  He's not fond of his stepfather, but until George
creates a confrontation with him, there are no signs that the stepfather's faults extend
any further than a lack of parental empathy and understanding.
Really, the only explanation that we're given is that he just decided one day that it was all meaningless.
Well welcome to being a teenager, kid; a really annoying, self-involved teenager.

Despite what he's dealing with, Charlie is a hopeful kid.
He writes his letters to his one-day "Friend" in anticipation of a time when
he doesn't feel so alone.  He wants friends, wants to find value in himself.
He makes a very specific and conscious effort to reach out to someone he finds interesting.
Charlie is full of heart, and wants to open that to others.
George is a self-pitying mope who really doesn't have that much to be moping about.
We're given no indication that he's ever had a friend before or that he really wants one again.
His "realization" is, apparently, a fairly recent development, although it may as well have been
the moment at which he was born into this universe, for all the personal development he's given.
He's as little interested in friends as he is in school.  Were it not for the voice over,
one might easily conclude that he was a poseur, fronting at disaffection.
He's petty and demonstrates little concern for anyone but himself.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower makes a far greater effort to demonstrate friendship,
not just between Charlie and Sam, but Charlie and Patrick, and Patrick and Sam, and Charlie and Mary Elizabeth, and Charlie and his aunt...  The story is filled with people who care,
and that may be one of its greatest powers.  We don't just see that they care,
but we see how that caring develops, and it's made believable through the
human interaction of kind and interesting people.
The Art of Getting By is really bad at developing its characters and relationships credibly.
The focus remains largely on the friendship between George and Sally, but it advances it
through cheap methods (yeah, you bet your ass there's a montage sequence) and leaves
an uncomfortable nagging about why they'd even bother to spend time together at all.
Sally, in particular, has little cause for taking such an interest in George other than the attention
and a shared disappointment in humanity.  Then again, she doesn't treat him particularly well either.

Charlie keeps his affection for Sam to himself, despite its obviosity.
The reasons for this are not merely well-explained, but form an important part
of the film's thematic backbone.  Once she comes to understand the extent of his feelings,
she processes it like a thinking, feeling person striving to grow.
George keeps his affection for Sally to himself, despite its obviosity.
The only reason demonstrated for this is his cowardice, and he fails to respond to
even the most open of invitations to, at the very least, enter into a discussion about the matter.
Once she comes to understand the extent of his feelings, she responds
with (not so) passive-aggression and self-righteous, sabotaging betrayal.

Things fall apart for Charlie when physical and emotional intimacy
unlocks latent issues related to his aunt and her death.
While this part of the movie is, unfortunately, pretty rushed, it's handled with an
appropriate gravitas and efficient pacing for a major third act development.
It ties into and explains much of what Charlie has been going through up until this point in the story.
Things fall apart for George when a paper-thin subplot about his stepfather 
is finally shoved into the foreground and treated with subplot-like indifference.
This, somehow, becomes the conduit for George's change-of-heart "learning moment"
although there's no emotional weight to it nor clearly expressed reason for it to have the effect that it does.
My best guess is that it demonstrates to him that he can no longer linger, but I'm being generous.

The resolution to the romantic thread between Charlie and Sam,
and indeed their lives in general, is non-conclusive, but emotionally satisfying.  
It makes perfect sense in the context of their characters and a credible artistic representation of life.  
It's hardly "happily ever after" but there is a satisfying "best outcome" sense about it.
The resolution to the romantic thread between George and Sally,
and indeed their lives in general, is non-conclusive, but emotionally baffling.
It doesn't make sense that either of them should go through the changes of heart that they do,
other than to fulfill the "boy wants girl" aspect of the story.  It's hardly "happily ever after,"
skewing more toward :"what the...?" or "And I'm supposed to care why, exactly?" territory.

These images actually illustrate some very core differences.

In other areas, The Perks of Being a Wallflower just feels like more, in every possible way. 
It runs about 20 minutes longer, but contains two to three times more content.
There are more characters with more heart who are more interesting and contribute
to more story with more moments that develop more themes.
I have egregiously glossed over the importance of Patrick, who adds a great deal to everything.
Logan Lerman (Charlie) is a more charismatic actor with more range and I was startled
when I realized how many things I've already seen him in.
In other areas, The Art of Getting By just feels like less.
It centers pretty strongly on just the two characters; George most of all.
Supporting character are much less independently defined, serving primarily as story objects
for George to respond to.  Any thematic development feels like an afterthought,
secondary to the "friend zone" story of a spoiled pouter.
I have, for years, wanted to find Freddie Highmore (George) more appealing as a performer,
but he simply doesn't bring much range or dynamism to his roles.

Perks has an outstanding soundtrack (your bigger budget at work),
prominently featuring alt-hits (if that can be said to be such a thing)
of the 70s, 80s & early 90s like David Bowie and The Smiths.
My one out-and-out criticism of the film, however, is the unsuspendable disbelief
that none of Charlie's gang has ever heard "Heroes" before and can't figure out who it is all year.
These kids are Rocky Horror players.  They would know their popular androgynes.
Art has a pretty non-spectacular soundtrack of more recent alt-rock
(which really isn't that "alt" anymore) that generally failed
to distinguish itself (except in the moments when it because tedious) for me.

And in a final coup-de-grace of parallels, BOTH films include the song Here by Pavement.

I've been kind of hard on The Art of Getting By, but the truth is, I didn't dislike it as I watched it.  I'm an easy mark for the heartbreak of the soulful yet troubled young man wrestling with romantic feelings in the "friend zone" and I'm at least as easy a mark for the artist desperate for validation.  Emma Roberts certainly presents as a credible focal point for a young man's interests, up until the point where I wanted to shake said young man and tell him, "Oh buddy, this is some bullshit you will never need in your life.  Let this one go."  Maybe that's just a little too much perspective to be bringing to a film whose target audience sees Say Anything as an oldie.

The problem, however, is context.  As soon as I'd finished the movie, I started to be struck by the similarities to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so I barreled right on through and watched it again, immediately after.  That was when things really started turning sour for "Art."  The emotional experience just could not compare positively, and the process of writing this all out in direct comparison really caused my impressions to polarize.

So it should come as no surprise that, in the side by side examination of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Art of Getting By, the Evil Twin Goatee goes to...

Brick Wall you reflect,
My teenage anxiety,
But I don't know why.

...The Art of Getting by, because I like more feeling in my feelings.

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