“Complete absence of parental involvement”

I have not seen the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower. All I know about it is what I read in Stephanie Perrault’s review in the September 22, 2012 issue of WORLD Magazine. Neither have I read the book on which the movie is based, a book that Perrault describes as “a series of letters to an imaginary friend, the book tells the story of introspective and slightly awkward Charlie as he starts high school and struggles to find friendship.”

According to Perrault, the book is one of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged books of 2009–justifiably so, she says. According to her review of the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is “a morass of teenage drug use, sexual experimentation, homosexuality, suicide, and obscene language. It originally earned an R rating, but Chbosky [the filmmaker] and his associates at Lionsgate Motion Picture Group appealed the rating and got it down to PG-13, removing nothing from the original footage.”

This is alarming to me for several reasons. Taking the last part first, that a film can contain that kind of content and still get away with a PG-13 rating serves only to remind me that I seem to find more PG-13 movies objectionable in recent years than I do R-rated films. Not that I watch all that many of the trending movies (I think the last time I was in a theater was to see Russell Crowe’s version of Robin Hood in 2010), but when I see a preview on television, read a review in a magazine or online, or even watch the movies, I find that the PG-13 movies tend to be more blatantly sexual, crude, disrespectful of authority and all-around offensive than many of the R-rated ones.

According to IMDb.com, the film earned a 15A rating in Ireland (not appropriate for children under 15), and a NC-16 rating in Singapore (children under 16 not admitted). In the UK children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult to see the film, and in the Philippines the movie is strictly for children 13 and up. Also according to that site’s information about the film, “Sex is a big part of the story, and it’s implied (mildly for some) all characters encounter it at some point during the movie, without any actual scenes shown.” The main female character, Sam, has apparently been sexually active since age 11, when she was kissed by her dad’s boss. Furthermore, while Sam does not “randomly hook up” with people any more, when she was a freshmen she would get drunk and engage in sexual activity freely. A homosexual student gets another boy drunk so that they can have sex. And, “On their first date, Mary Elizabeth tries to get Charlie drunk for sex, giving him a bottle of wine, resting her head on his leg, and pulling down her dress, revealing her bra. This fails when her parents come home.”

And this story is set in the 1990s–nearly twenty years ago!

IMDb’s report goes on to include additional scenes of alcohol use, instances of violence and abuse, use of profanity, and more.

According to one of the “Super Reviewers” on rottentomatoes.com, KJ Proulx, this film earns five starts (out of a maximum five). He writes, “This is not a film, this is a presentation of real-life events that stole my heart from the very beginning.” The movie info describes it as a “modern classic,” and “a moving tale of love, loss, fear and hope-and the unforgettable friends that help us through life.”

Eighty-six percent of reviews cited on Rotten Tomatoes like the film, and a whopping 95% of the 14,579 users of the site who have rated it liked the movie.

I do not know which is more troubling…that a movie with this kind of content is so popular, or that the movie is supposed to be such an accurate and true-to-life depiction of teenage life. What does it say about our culture if we are not only allowing teenagers to grow up this way, but we then make movies about it?

In her review, though, Perrault goes on to say that the behaviors depicted in the film are “not the most disturbing part.” What’s worse than that? “[T]he complete absence of parental involvement in the young people’s lives.” The movie’s character Charlie, Perrault writes, comes from a “functional two-parent home” but his parents have absolutely no idea what is going on in his life, or in the lives of his friends.

In reading this, I am reminded of Koren Zailckas’s book Smashed. In her troubling memoir of growing up as a teenage alcoholic, I was troubled by this same thing. She was from a functional two-parent family, as well, and she even interacted with them, but they were completely clueless that she was drinking regularly, and dangerously, all throughout her high school years. I have had experience with parents like this, too. On a personal level, I have never forgotten going to the home of a girl I was quite fond of in high school, meeting her parents, and having them retreat immediately to their bedroom, not to be seen or heard of again the entire time I was there. Yes, they were physically present in the house, but they had no idea what was really going on. I have interacted with numerous parents, throughout my experience as a children’s home administrator and educator, who seem to pay attention to their children only when they need something from them. Otherwise, so long as the kids stay out of the way, it seems not to matter what they are doing.

Teenagers need adults in their lives who are actively involved. Being present is not enough. Teens who have not had this kind of interaction are usually looking for it. That is why they are drinking, abusing drugs, and engaging in sexual behavior, in most instances–because they are seeking an escape from the pain of their life and/or they are looking for a sense of belonging and value from anywhere/anyone they can get it.

If you have children, make sure you spend time with them–really with them. Talk to them, ask hard questions, get to know their friends. And if their friends are missing an involved adult, take advantage of the opportunities you might have to be involved in their lives, as well. And even if you do not have your own children, there are numerous ways in which caring adults can be involved in young people’s lives, from church youth groups to mentoring programs to youth league coaching, and many more. Find opportunities, and take advantage of them.