Today I want to talk about a story that means a lot to me.
You know how people say that when you read a book at the right time in your life, it can change you? Usually ‘the right time’ is during your formative years like high school, which sometimes implies that if you read a book at thirty it won’t change you, which is just not true, but that’s beside the point. To be fair, this story is one that I did find at the right time and that was during high school, so I can’t talk.
I went to a magnet school in south Florida. Frankly, many of the public schools in Florida leave a lot to be desired, so if you want to 1) get a good education and 2) feel relatively safe, your choices are magnet schools, charter schools, or private schools. I went to a private school during middle school where I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of spiritual damage done. For high school, I was desperate to escape to somewhere that I would feel included. That ended up being an amazing arts-focused high school where I majored in communications. Yes, we had majors. It was a wonderful, weird, incredible place.
I really enjoyed high school. I’ll just say that now. I don’t want to pretend like I had this traumatizing high school experience because I know a lot of people actually did have an experience like that and I don’t want to take away from that. But I think everyone, just by virtue of growing up and being a teenager and the utter crazy factory that your brain becomes when you hit high school, goes through periods where they feel out of place. Confused. Angry. Like nobody understands. Even the kids with great families and great opportunities experience self-doubt, fear, feelings they can’t explain. Everyone does stupid things they regret. Everyone treats someone badly. Everyone wishes they could do something differently.
And that’s where this story comes in.
I had a tight-knit group of friends in high school from the creative writing department. I split my time mostly between creative writing and film, but in my senior year there were only about six of us in creative writing and because of budget cuts (unfortunately even in arts school, the arts are the first thing to go when the money runs out) we had no classroom, so we sat in the hallway outside a freshman journalism class and the teacher would occasionally check on us. Sometimes, rarely, we even did a little bit of writing.
One of my friends gave me a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and basically said, “This book will change your life.” When you’re a teenager and you listen to that certain song or read that certain book or see that certain movie, it changes your life. And when you share it with someone, it has to change their life too because it is JUST THAT DAMN IMPORTANT and if they don’t understand, they are dead to you.
So this book did change my life.
Charlie is at the same time a wonderfully unique character as well as a lens that we all look through to try and figure out our messed up feelings and see where we went wrong. For me, the book captured everything I felt – my friends, my family, my head, the times I spent crying for literally no reason at all, the dumb stuff you do that you can never tell anyone for fear they’d never talk to you again, and more. My situation in life is nothing like Charlie’s, but I still identified with him and his friends like I can’t even explain. And that’s when you know a book is special.
The book came to me because it was a copy that got passed around to all our friends. When you were done, you gave it to someone else. You could write in it, underline it, whatever you wanted, but you didn’t keep it – you shared it.
I’ve had a copy of the book since high school and I’m not quite certain if my copy is the one that we all loved, but I know for sure that it was loved.
The movie came out just a few weeks ago and I’ve been out of high school for awhile. I don’t feel the same way I did then. I have new friends, new memories, new ways of looking at things, but you never lose what happens to you during high school and I feel that part of me as strongly as ever.
To say I was skeptical of the movie was putting it lightly. When someone out there presumes to take something you love and turn it into something else, the immediate protectiveness is impossible to shake. Oddly enough, it didn’t even comfort me that Stephen Chbosky, the author of the book, was also writing and directing it. That’s so rare in Hollywood that I had no idea how he finagled it but did this guy know anything about film?! (Turns out yes, he has a ton of film and television experience, so. Crisis averted.)
Then I saw the trailer:
And then I realized everything was going to be okay.
For one thing, this song immediately made it in constant rotation in my life:
For another thing, trailers are an incredible art form. A good trailer can be better than the movie it’s made for. In this case, the trailer gave me the chills. I felt comfortable that the movie would be pretty good, but there’s no way it could live up to the trailer. And I felt fine with that. A movie half as good as the trailer would be a damn good movie.
And then I saw the movie.
And it was perfect.
And I’ll never doubt you again, Stephen Chbosky. I swear.
It’s very rare that a movie is so genuine. I can’t think of any other way to put it. Every scene of the movie is made in a way that is utterly genuine, utterly honest, and comes from a real place of earnest understanding. Yet it never veers into cliche or sap. It’s like having a conversation with a friend you’ve missed. In this case, a friend like Charlie.
I was fortunate enough to see a special screening the day before the movie was released. It had a Q&A with Stephen Chbosky afterward as well as a book signing. He is a kind, gentle, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent person – the only person who could’ve made this movie. He spoke about how many people and places had tried to buy the rights to the book over the years to make it into a movie and how he had always said no, just waiting for the right time. When asked, “Why now?” he said somewhere in his subconscious, it must have been waiting for this cast to fall into place, for this group of people to come together and play these characters. If he had done it earlier they would’ve been too young (and Emma Watson would’ve been kinda busy on another little project) and if he’d waited, they’d have been too old. It had to be perfect timing. And it was. Somehow, it was.
The filmmaking side of me soaked up his answers about directing, writing, his characters, and more. He talked about how they didn’t have a real rehearsal process before the movie, just a little bit of time when they all arrived before they started shooting, so he immediately put Emma Watson and Ezra Miller together to make up the dance they would do at prom because even though they’d just met, he figured the best way to get close to someone immediately and break down the walls of first meetings was to make up a dance together. He then kept Logan Lerman away from them in the beginning so he would still feel a little bit isolated and then slowly get acclimated to them. Just smart, little things that a director can do without being manipulative or anything to help the cast eventually look like they’d all become best friends.
He also talked about the sequence where they ride through the tunnels. It’s an incredible, cinematic moment in the movie when Sam climbs up on the truck and stands with her arms wide open as they speed through the Pittsburgh tunnels. He said that Emma Watson went into the tunnels as Emma and she came out as Sam. When she got to the other side, emerging from this place into the huge cityscape, she became Sam. And that is really beautiful.
When I met Stephen Chbosky and he was signing my book, I told him about the book we’d passed around through high school as well as my memories associated with the Pittsburgh tunnels. We used to go to Pittsburgh every Christmas to visit my extended family. The ride from the airport to my grandmother’s house is a pretty good distance so I would just sort of zone out and be bored in the car – until we got to the tunnels. When we got to the tunnels, I knew we were close. The view of Pittsburgh when you come out of the tunnels is really just breathtaking. The whole city is laid out before you. And I felt the same feeling when we could come zooming out from under those tunnels and suddenly we’d be over the river and looking at the huge buildings and the smoke and fog and snow in the sky. He captured it well.