The Perks of Being a Coming of Age Story

★★★

There are some genres that draw my skeptical gaze. Coming of age stories and stories about budding writers are near the top of the list. Personally, I believe the whole concept of coming of age in one year, one summer, or one crazy weekend is total bunk. As for stories about writers, well, they are written by professional writers and can be more than a little self serving.

Other than my distaste for the genre, one quibble to address is the time period of the movie. The music, cassette tapes, and vinyl records in the film are from the early 1980s, the clothes are from the mid-90s, and the haircuts are from 2012. As I myself graduated high school in 1992, I found the anachronisms distracting. Perhaps the film intentionally mixed time periods so the nostalgia factor could spread across several generations (marketing!). Let's make this two quibbles: all of the actors were too old to play teenagers. Perhaps the intent was to portray the movie from the perspective of a high school freshman, in which case a high school senior might as well be played by a wrinkle faced twenty year old. On the other hand, the high school freshman in question is played by a 21 year old man, so I cannot really buy into any of it.

Now that the quibbles are behind us, let us discuss my distaste for the entire genre. The trope of a precocious young writer in this movie is presented as the usual fragile sad sack with no friends. This is very familiar to movies such as “Almost Famous” which was about a precious teenager who dreamed of becoming a professional writer and learned a bunch of life lessons from a group of newly obtained older friends. Much as “Avatar” was a rehash of the adventure tropes, “Perks” is a rehash of the regularly released young writer coming of age movie. The protagonists in these movies are presented as blank slates with no history or personality, yet a self aggrandizing awareness. There is a mental health subplot that dredges up the protagonists distant past for a rather sad and touching moment near the end of the film. Yet I have trouble reconciling the protagonist's troubling distant past with his complete absence of a recent past. Near end of the film, I would not have been surprised if the entirely film was revealed as a lonely kids fantasies, and flashbacks from another point of view would show a disturbed youngster talking to himself in the halls of his schools and explaining the complete and total alienation of his peers. The film doesn't even explain the perks of being a wallflower. The older kids that our protagonist befriends all participate in school dances and are literally not wall flowers. Instead, we see the perks of having friends who are older, more confident, and ultimately more interesting.

Following “Perks”, my wife and I had a discussion about the merits of coming of age stories. My wife tells of a dramatic senior year of high school that failed to provide meaningful life lessons. I remember my five year high school reunion where one of my former classmates made a point of showing me the senior picture I signed for him. I had written something about him achieving more than he thought he could (or something like that). He told me this message spurred him to become a medical professional, which led him to traveling the world and meet his future wife. Maybe he was being generous for my benefit. If true, though, his coming of age moment was solely based on his own desire to better himself, and not a serious of meaningful experiences. Life changing events are not reserved for youth. Former U.S. president George “Dubbya” Bush stopped driving drunk and started taking life seriously after his 40th birthday. Robert Downy Junior also stopped abusing substances in his 40s and became box office gold. Plenty of other people made their mark later in life, and not after a defining moment in their youth but after half a lifetime of experiences. And then you have the new parents who are never the same again. Coming of age is a muth and “Perks” is nowhere near as good as “Almost Famous”.

 

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