Cinema Therapy: Anxiety, Trauma and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Sometimes when you’ve had a long day, the nicest thing you can do when you get home is kick your feet up and enjoy a good movie. It may seem like it’s a good way to relax, but watching films can actually do much more for us with regards to our mental wellbeing, and become more advantageous that normally considered.

These benefits have actually been utilized to create a strand of expression therapy called ‘Cinematherapy’, made popular by Dr Gary Solomon, which uses visual media as a tool to express emotion and heal. Whilst I have covered some aspects of cinematherapy in my previous article Cinema Therapy: How Christmas Movies Can Help Your Mental Health, I will be posting at least once a month on the topic as part of a new series.

The purpose of this series is to not only promote the beneficial relationship between cinema and emotional healing, but to take specific films and use each of them as a case study to breakdown which aspects of mental health they cover and what lessons we can take from them. Coming from a background education in Media Studies and now pursuing a career in counselling, it made perfect sense to combine these into something I think would be unique and fun to discuss.

Before moving onto our film, I want to discuss the benefits of watching movies. As covered in my previous article, there are so many of these, but some of the main aspects I think are worth discussing are as follows:

Escapism – The ability to be transported to another time and place can allow you to feel distant from your problems and take your mind off any anxiety you may be feeling about your real-life circumstances.

Emotional Transference – Being able to experience characters as they navigate challenges, both situationally and emotionally, can allow us to relate their experiences and feelings to our own lives and can sometimes allow us to learn lessons from the fictional situations that can help us. Though, with transference we also have to be cautious in case we inadvertently trigger ourselves from seeing something in a film that we share a negative connection with or feeling towards.

Catharsis – In the same area as emotional transference, movies can be used in order to allow us to experience catharsis, or emotional release, when we are in particular need. This can help us purge intense emotions such as sadness, anger or fear depending on the films we are watching. Studies on several genres have been done in the past but the most common discussed as having an impact on our mental health are comedy, romance, drama and horror.

General Self-Care – Watching movies can be used for generalized self-care, allowing you to relax and take some time alone to watch at home. It can also be good to see friends when going to the cinema, which is also beneficial as it allows some social interaction, which if carefully approached, can increase your happiness levels. Just be careful not to spend too much time in front of the screen as this can lead to you feeling lazy and low and if you’re going out to watch in the cinema be aware of your triggers if you’re prone to experiencing social anxiety.

I’m sure this is no surprise to anyone who read the title to this article, but the film I thought I would discuss first is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Based on Chbosky’s book of the same name, a brief synopsis follows its main character Charlie, a socially awkward freshman as he becomes friends with two step-sibling seniors named Sam and Patrick. This happens all whilst Charlie writes letters to someone which acts as a narration for the film. However, this is just a tiny fragment of the narrative.

Before we go into that though and fully discuss the aspects of the film which cover mental health, I would like to first offer two warnings as I will do in each article of this series:

  1. Spoiler Warning: I’m sure this goes without saying, as I did mention above that I would be analysing each film in detail. So, consider this your final warning to turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie and would like to spoiler-free.
  2. Trigger Warning: This one is definitely more important to note. This particular film covers strong themes of anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse and self-harm. If any of these may cause you distress then please approach carefully and take a step back at any time if needed.

Okay, so now that we’ve covered that, we can get on with the analysis. As mentioned in the trigger warning above, the film covers quite a range of mental health issues, so in order for us to fully explore and discuss the representation in The Perks of Being a Wallflower we will approach each of these individually.   

Theme 1: Social Anxiety

From the starting point of the film, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is introduced as a shy, socially anxious outcast. He writes to ‘a friend’ and explains that he is starting high school but is already looking forward to his final day there. Charlie has no real friends and isn’t confident enough to even speak up in class when he knows the answer to questions nobody else does. For all intents and purposes, Charlie is invisible.

Logan Lerman does a fantastic job here, as he portrays both a social anxiety and a desire to get through his personal challenges and become more social. Charlie puts himself out there, going to a football game alone where he ends up meeting Patrick and Sam, who would end up being just what he needs to get out of his shell.

Charlies anxieties are largely overcome throughout the film, with him speaking up for himself, standing up for his friends and even filling in for a Rocky Horror Show performance last minute in front of a live audience. This journey of social anxiety seems to come to a positive end with Charlie finally being visible in class when asked a question, regardless of his peers being judgemental towards him.

Overall, in the film, many of Charlies anxieties in this film are overcome and not by radical changes in personality as many films can show. Instead, these changes occur through smaller steps and increased social interaction, which is a lesson we can actually apply to our own lives in order to improve our mood and widen our social comfort zones. It’s something I have discussed many times before, but being around others can greatly improve your mood and make you feel more comfortable, just be sure you’re around the right people.

Theme 2: Trauma

This particular issue is explored through the characters of Sam (played by Emma Watson) and Charlie. Sam’s particular trauma is revealed during a scene where she discusses her first kiss growing up. She explains how at the age of 11, she had her first kiss with Robert, her dad’s boss. This along with other conversations around Sam being taken advantage off at parties or deemed slutty, really paints a picture of the abuse she suffered and how it shaped the decisions in her formative years.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, she asks Charlie “Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like we’re nothing?” to which he replies, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This specific exchange totally sums up the character of Sam and the trauma she has went through and prevailed from. It may take her a string of toxic relationships and low self-esteem, but she starts to face this by the end of the movie.

Toxic relationships aren’t always caused by some repressed trauma you experienced earlier in life, but it can be a common occurrence that cause us to fall into negative patterns or cycles. Through observing Sam, we get a nuanced insight into someone’s life who is experiencing exactly this. It’s also worth noting that with the right support from family and friends, it’s a bad habit we can begin to quit.

Whilst Sam is of course a noteworthy study with regards to trauma, Charlie takes major focus for the representation of this. For Charlie, his trauma manifests in two different forms; Acknowledged and Repressed.

His acknowledged trauma is revealed early on in the film, when he confesses to Sam whilst high that his best friend committed suicide a year ago and didn’t leave a note. Aside from the high-school setting which grounds much of the movie, it can be quite easy to forget that Charlie is only 15 years old, meaning he had to go through the impact of his best friends suicide at the age of 14. Whilst he acknowledges that this did happen, it’s not something he is forward about, for obvious reasons.

It’s a very quick note the film makes and if you aren’t paying attention or step out for a moment it could be extremely easy to miss. It isn’t lingered on for much longer than that one scene, however, this doesn’t mean it’s a nothing statement. The scene itself blends the comedic ‘baked like a cake’ Charlie who is craving milkshakes, with the tragic sadness of him confessing he wishes his friend left a note almost effortlessly. It’s a nice note on how he needs to be comfortable in order to open up and share his feelings, which is something those with anxiety can definitely relate to.

Unfortunately for Charlie that isn’t the biggest trauma he has suffered in his life, despite not realising fully until the final scenes. Throughout the film there are several endearing mentions of his aunt Helen, who is deceased, and how she made such a big impact in his life, from playing games with him to telling him he could be a writer. However, these discussions and brief flashbacks take a darker turn as the film goes on.

Firstly, it is revealed that aunt Helen died in a traffic accident on the way to get a birthday present. In one of the most heart-breaking scenes from the film, we discover that Charlie feels he is to blame for the death of his aunt Helen. Not only this, but that he thinks part of him wanted her to die. This entire aspect of the story comes to a head when it is revealed that Charlie was actually sexually abused by his aunt.

This is a very real depiction of repressed trauma and the impact it can cause when it comes to light if not handled professionally or sensitively. Thankfully the film eludes to this as Charlie ends up going to therapy sessions by the end of the film, as a way of working through his grief and helping him deal with the situation. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower excellently handles trauma and the many different forms it can take, and is such a refreshing representation. This is especially important considering that the film deals with teenagers who have experienced trauma, which is an area that can usually be extremely cliched and negatively positioned. It is also worth noting that the movie shares several different approaches to coping with trauma, as explored through each main character and their personal struggle. All in all it’s a very uplifting message regarding how we can grow and learn from our trauma.

Theme 3: Sexuality and Mental Health

Whilst this is by no means as heavily covered as the previous two points, it is still very much worth noting. Through the depiction of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Brad’s (Johnny Simmons) relationship, there is definitely some focus on their mental health. On one hand, Patrick is the outgoing flamboyant character who cracks jokes and pokes fun as a way of easing both his own and his friends stress. On the other hand, Brad is a closeted jock from a religious background.

It is by no means the first time we’ve seen this type of relationship in movies or television, and can be considered a classic trope at this point, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower handles it in a unique way. The focus is less on making this relationship work and having the closeted character come out to an eventually warm welcome. It’s messier than that because life can also be messier than that.

The two kiss behind closed doors but don’t talk in public and for a while this works for them. However, eventually, Brad’s father discovers them and beats his son to a pulp in front of Patrick, causing everything to change. Brad’s internalised homophobia causes him to hide where the beating came from and still play heterosexual to his friends, even going as far as to mock Patrick in public.

This particular representation is still common, but Brad is shown to have remorse for his actions whilst still remaining very firmly closeted in public. It may not be as glammed up as the film would have you believe, but this situation can and does happen to many teenagers going through high school. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, it is ridiculous for me to think about being openly gay in school, so I totally understand the character arc whilst I don’t agree with it.

Patrick on the other hand copes with this through false positivity, starting each night happy and excited only for this to fade and him to become depressed due to the situation, another mental health issue that is extremely common with all teenagers but especially those who are LGBTQ+.

Whilst it’s not a lot of coverage into the specific struggles of this situation, it still gives us a window into the life of one couple with a core issue which ends up effecting both of their mental wellbeing.

Before I wrap up this post, I just wanted to cover a few things. First of all, this may read like a film review and I totally get that, because it kind of is. My goal for this series is to not only review the film, but to focus primarily on the aspects which cover mental health and how well it is represented. I know it’s easy to say that all representation is good, be it positive or negative, and yes there is some truth to that, but it shouldn’t make us strive any less to track down the positive depictions that could help us learn a lesson or two in the process.

Second of all, and more importantly, cinematherapy is not a replacement for therapy. I know I discussed this at the start of the post and I hugely support the benefits of watching a movie for self-care purposes, it isn’t as easy as turning on Netflix to solve all of your problems. If you are experiencing mental health problems, then address them in a professional setting, with someone who is trained to assist you.

I strongly recommend the movie to those who haven’t seen it, and hope that you get as much enjoyment from it as I did. If you liked this article follow AnxietyBear below for more mental health related posts and further cinema therapy posts in the future.

Have you seen the film discussed? What are your views on it? Is there another film you would like me to discuss in my next post in this series? Let me know your thoughts below.

If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.

Published by AnxietyBear

Opening a conversation around the topic of mental health. Providing support and advice. Exploring personal experiences.

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