First Person / The perks of sharing a movie

See 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' with your teenager

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As a sociologist, a freelance writer for a foreign educational magazine, a mother of two boys (23 and 18) and a girl (15), it's difficult to find time to watch movies. I'm also very picky about the movies I see, so when I went to see "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" with my teenage daughter, I had doubts.

How could a movie about a wallflower be interesting? How could a movie that touches on so many sensitive social issues such as drug use, homosexuality, depression and suicide be entertaining? Would the film accurately capture the innocence of teenagers growing in maturity alongside all the confusion and self-doubt that is part of the high school experience?

I gave the movie a chance.

After the credits rolled, I was speechless. It was not only entertaining, touching and funny, but surprisingly encouraging and empowering.

Adults and teenagers communicate better when we have a shared frame of reference. Without it, we often feel as though we are talking to a wall, even as we speak in the same language.

Teenagers are into inside jokes among their peers because it makes them feel superior to be part of a group with its own "culture." "The Perks of being a Wallflower" narrows the gap by providing a frame of reference for talking with our teenagers.

This movie exposes and expresses key elements of teen culture -- football games, school dances, music, parties, fights, depression and romantic relationships. These cannot be captured by statistics, survey data and research papers.

Teenagers have neither the patience nor desire to explain any of these things to their parents. It's not a "cool thing to do." As a result, conversations get shorter and less frequent as their grade levels rise. They can get lost in their own culture, but "Perks" provides tools for us to communicate again.

After the movie ended, my daughter and I quickly ran into the restroom to wipe away the tears of sorrow, empathy and laughter. We weren't the only ones. We bumped into many others who were equally as affected.

The conversations among mothers and daughters were interesting and engaging because we all had shared the same experience. When my daughter told me there were many Charlies -- the main character's name -- in high school but too few Mr. Andersons, I completely understood what she meant.

Outside the restroom, one girl told her mom, "I did not cry watching Titanic, but I could not help crying several places while watching 'Perks.' " Her mother replied, "That's because you can feel, relate to and share the emotions of the characters."

This movie made me realize how vulnerable teenagers are, regardless of their gender or social status. I began to see that there was a delayed synchronization between teenagers' emotional development and their ability to express themselves. The types and complexities of their feelings multiply as they age, but they lack the tools and environment to safely convey them without judgment.

Luckily, Charlie finds an outlet with the support of a caring English teacher, a loving family and a lovable group of "psychos." Even so, Charlie still struggles to find inner peace, meaning and self-worth.

Writer/director Stephen Chbosky captures in "Perks" a beautiful story about the vulnerable and volatile nature of teenagers. It's a story about love, friendship and the meaning of life. All the drug use, destructive behavior and suicides are more than just rebellion; they are cries for help. They are the ways teenagers hide the pain, confusion and loneliness that comes with growing up.

I hope my daughter can learn from Sam -- Emma Watson's charater -- and begin to realize her worth and purpose in life. I hope audiences around the world can see beyond the drug use, fights and parties to see the real lives and struggles of American teenagers through this movie.

I loved it, but even more, I loved the chance to sit next to my daughter and share her story.

opinion_commentary

Leigh Tong is a sociologist and mother who lives in Franklin Park (leighfive@gmail.com).


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