A partial spoiler in the last paragraph of the review.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Stephen Chbosky adapts and direct his own popular 1999 young-adult novel in a memorable film that recalls the delightful entre into high schoolers’ lives that filmmaker John Hughes gave us so delightfully a generation ago.
Chobosky’s is a film, with its frank talk about sex and recreational drug use by teens, that might raise eyebrows at a church where a leader wants to discuss the film with its youth, but doing so is sure to engender an engaging exploration of important issues—especially of what the Scriptures and the church mean by grace.
Charlie (Logan Lerman), in a series of letters, either to a real or imaginary penpal, describes his life at his high school as an anxious (defintely not eager, the word that too often is used incorrectly as a synonym for the latter!) freshman. He is very much the “stranger” of the above Biblical passage for reasons that become clearer as the story unfolds.
Just how much a stranger he is becomes evident when on his first day at school he faces that agonizing choice that every unconnected freshman feels the first time he enters the cafeteria as he looks around (anxiously) to see at what table he should sit and not risk rejection. His older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) gives him a negative sign when he looks toward her table, as does a student whom he had known slightly in Middle School.
In English class, where To Kill a Mockingbird is the first required book, his teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) asks a question about what serialized book led to the publication of the first paperback. Charlie writes the correct name on his paper but is too shy to raise his hand, so the question goes unanswered. The disappointed teacher walks by his desk and notices that Charlie had the right answer (Charles Dickens), so he talks with Charlie after class, and from that a limited friendship begins, Anderson suggesting to the book-loving student other books he might like. But, as Charlie wryly observes, his first day is not a good beginning when your only new friend is a teacher.
This situation soon changes on the night that Charlie attends a football game. He sits in the stands, very much alone, until he strikes up a conversation with Patrick (Ezra Miller) across the aisle. He remembers the session from his freshman shop class in which Patrick had enrolled even though he is a senior. Because of the brief friendly interchange Charlie seeks and is given permission to join him, and just as he takes his new seat, the pair are joined by Sam (Emma Watson, wonderfully playing a girl very different from the character whom we have come to love, Hermione). Sam readilly accepts Charlie—the amazing grace in the scene being that Patrick and Sam are seniors. Seniors! When I was in highschool that would have been an unheard of relationship. Seniors, Lords of Senior Walk, who stopped and humilated any smooth cheeked Freshie that forgot and tread upon their sacred space. Now in this case, it turns out that Patrick and Sam also are partially outsiders themselves, hanging out with the school’s artsy crowd, but still… Charlie is elated to have found friendship, and when after the game they stop off at a café, he learns that his intial assumption that Patrick and Sam are a twosome is wrong. They are stepsister and stepbrother instead. Thus Charlie can now entertain his feelings of love beyond that of friendship with Sam without any sense of guilt. He keeps this to himself at first, but does open up his heart concerning other feelings. “I really wanna be a writer but I don’t know what I’d write about,” he tells his friends. “You can write about us,” Sam replies, and Patrick adds, “Call it ‘The slut and the falcon.’ Make us solve crimes.” At another time Charlie, reflecting on his past says, “There’s so much pain. And I don’t know how not to notice it.” His best friend had committed suicide, not even leaving him a note, and several years before that Charlie’s beloved Aunt Helen had died when a truck rammed her car broadside. It was the night of his birthday!
Sam has some low self esteem issues herself due to her past promiscuousness, so in the scene when Charlie begins to open up, she quips, “Welcome to the island of misfit toys,” Patrick has been saddled with the nickname “Nothing” by the joking shop teacher, and she herself feels that way in regard to her present sad relationship with an unworthy boy named Craig. “Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we’re nothing?” Wise beyond his 15 years, Charlie replies, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Although his family is practicing Catholics, Charlie probably has not consciously thought out the implication of the commandment from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself, but he intuitively understands this.
Charlie becomes a keeper of secrets (another form of grace), first that of his sister Candace when he observes her boyfriend abusing her and she asks him not to reveal this to their parents, claiming that she can handle the problem. Then at a party, where he gathers new friends and soars to hallucinatary heights when fed a “brownie,” he stumbles into an upstairs bedroom where Patrick is about to have sex with Brad (Johnny Simmons), a star football player. (I said using this film with your youth group might be risky.) Patrick begs him not to tell anyone about his homosexuality, to which Charlie readilly agrees. Later on we learn Charlie’s big secret about himself, and it includes a family member whom he had loved so much.
This film is bound to make Visual Parables’ Top Ten List this year. It brought up so many memories of my own feeling of being an outsider in high scool badly in need of the grace of inclusion. I was the only child of a divorced working mother, whereas all the other students I knew at that now ancient time had a working father and a housewife mother. My grace group was a state science fiction club made up of teachers and other professionals who welcomed without condescension myself and a couple of other teenaged misfits.
I love the way the film uses its setting, the Pittsburgh, metro area, and especially what always remained for me the thrill of approaching or leaving downtown by means of a tunnel burrowing through the huge hill that blocked the city from the southern suburbs. I recall the multitude of times entering the dimness of the tunnel and then three or four minutes later, suddenly the gorgeous skyline almost hits you in the face as you near the tunnel’s mouth (a spectacular effect at night when the skyscrapers were all lit up). In this film our three friends are zooming through the tunnel in the family pickup truck when an unknown song touches all their hearts, Calling it “the perfect song,” Sam express her Zen feeling of joy by climbing through the rear window. Standing up in the truck bed, her arms outstretched, she revels at the feel of the wind on her face. Reassured by Patrick that she is okay, that Sam does this frequently, Charlie says, “I feel infinite.” Sam’s pose will remind many of Rose standing in the prow of The Titanic with Jack, her arms also stretched out as she thrills to the rush of the wind and of their newfound love.
Stephen Chbosky’s dialogue is witty without being smart allecky. And the plot twists are often surprising; with a climax that leaves a sense of fulfillment and a sense of gratitude that you have been allowed to enter into the lives of this trio and their friends. There are some dark moments near the end involving the possible termination of relationships, and even of the life of the key character when the horror and guilt resulting from Aunt Helen’s death threaten Charlie’s hold on sanity. However, through a series of gracious events, Charlie is able to experience his own Zen moment, the film ending with a long letter that ends with the uplifting observation he makes in the pickup truck driven by Patrick while he gazes at Sam. He writes, “I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.” It is a moment, a heart-warmingly beautiful moment, of grace, known sooner or later to all believers bound together by a common love of God an neighbor.
Note: Those planning to discuss this excellent film with youth should forewarn parents about what would have made this an R-rated film a few years ago (sex, including the issue of homosexuality; drug use; and language). Hopefully most parents will trust you enough to know that you will not “corrupt” their offspring, but only if you are upfront about the issues frankly depicted and discussed.
1. Did you relate to one person better than to others, and if so, which one?
What is Charlie like when we first meet him? Patrick; Sam? How is each of them a wounded soul in some way?
2. At some point in your life have you felt like Charlie, an outsider badly in need of friends? If so, when and what was it, and what happened? How apparently are books a help in his coping? And from what Charlie writes at the end of the film, also the unidentified recipient of his letters?
3. What do you think of the supporting characters in the film: even though we do not see as many details of their lives, how do they seem more like flesh and blood people than those depicted in the usual highschool film?
Mary Elizabeth Candace Mom & Dad Brad Mr. Anderson Dr. Burton 4. What do you think Charlie means when he says about the girl he is dating: “Mary Elizabeth is a nice person underneath the parts of her that hate everybody’? How might this be related to what he says to Sam, “We accept the love we think we deserve” ? What keen insight is there in the Biblical command that says not to just love our neighbor, but to love our “neighbor as yourself” ? How is a proper self-love bound up with love of others? Can there be one without the other?
5. Youth and their elders in the church might have very passionate opinions and feelings about homosexuality, so tread lightly when dealing with this issue and try to help the group to agree to disagree agreeably:
What do you think of the relationship between Patrick and Brad? Would this be a very dangerous relationship in your school and community? (Remember the hate crimes in Wyoming and Texas a few years ago?) In the film how is even one’s home dangerous, at least for Brad? Why do you think Brad turns on Patrick and, in the cafeteria with his teammates looking on, hurls the vicious epithet of “Faggot!” at his former lover? What have you read about some of the most avid homophobes being either gay themselves or harboring serious doubts about their sexuality? How is what happens between them later at the principal’s office a moment of grace?
6. What are some other moments of grace in the film?
Patrick’s Secret Santa gift to Charlie; Sam’s gift of the typewriter; Charlie’s keeping his sister and Patrick’s secret; Sam’s making Charlie a milkshake; the gift of “the first kiss;” Charlie’s agreeing to go out with Mary Elizabeth; Mr. Anderson’s list of books for Charlie; Patrick’s toast to Charlie at a party (note the dialogue between Patrick and Charlie!); what Charlie does for Sam’s college preparation; Dr. Burton and the way she relates to Charlie. How is even Charlie’s attacking Brad in the cafeteria an act of grace, albeit a violent act?
7. How does Sam help Charlie to live in the moment? Charlie says of this, “And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.” Could you substitute “divine” for infinite? Could this be what in the New Testament Paul calls a kairos moment?
8. Were you a bit startled by the transition from the shot of the Communion Host in Charlie’s mouth to the “weed,” or whatever, being put into his mouth at the party? What do you think of the young people’s attitude toward and use of drugs? What dangers do you see, and despite these, what do you think are the reasons that teenagers accept drugs?
9. What do you make of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the kids fascination with it? Is there a regular showing on a Friday or Saturday night in your area? Why do you think people love dressing up in costumes and singing in synch with the characters up on the screen? Might it be because of a sense of belonging, and of overthrowing conventional behavior?
10. For a while Charlie is shunned by his friends: what is it that turned them against him? How might he have handled the Truth or Dare skit better? How is what he does for Patrick when Dale attacks him all the more an act of grace, given his current relationship (or lack) with the group?
10. What do you think brings on Charlie’s breakdown? Why must he have felt being alone and abandoned? And how might this be related to his past relationship with his Aunt Helen?
11. How is Dr. Burton a saving grace in his life? At this point deep into the film we are shown just a little of the process leading him out of his darkness back into the light: what do you think of the doctor’s demeanor and approach? For an excellent film that goes into such a relationship between therapist and teenager fairly deeply, see the Robert Redford-directed film Ordinary People.
12. How is the last scene in the tunnel one of hope and affirmation? What do you think might happen eventually between the stepsister/stepbrother and Charlie?
13. To read all of Charlie’s long letter at the conclusion go to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1659337/quotes 14. Where might you see God in this film? Of course, in the church where the Mass is celebrated, but where else? How are the two moments in the tunnel similar to the Psalmist’s words” This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118.24) I almost called these a Zorba the Greek moment: to see what I mean, you can compare them by watching what is truly one of the great films of the Sixties, Zorba the Greek.