WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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wonder

Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

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MONEY MONSTER (2016) Tamed by Sentimentality

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MONEY MONSTER (2016), the new drama/thriller directed by Jodie Foster, and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, has the right idea.  It tells a story about the “little guy” fighting back against Wall Street greed, but it takes the wrong approach, as none of what transpires on screen is all that believable.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a hot shot TV celebrity who hosts a show on the wheelings and dealings of Wall Street, and it’s a show that’s full of flashy pizzazz. His director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is his right hand person and keeps him in line on the air.  However, unbeknownst to him, she’s in the midst of her final broadcast as she’s leaving for another network.

In the middle of the show, a man appears on stage and suddenly starts shooting.  He then forces Lee to put on a vest armed with a bomb, and he holds the detonator in his hand.  Anyone messes with him, and he’ll blow up the building, on live TV no less, and it’s being shown live because he orders the cameras to keep rolling.

We learn that the man’s name is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), and he lost all his money when the company Lee had told his viewers was a sure thing and a safer investment than a savings account goes belly up.  This company supposedly lost its funds due to a program glitch.  The man who runs the company, Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s show that day but cancelled at the last minute.  Not only did he cancel, but he seems to have gone into hiding, just when his company misplaced billions of dollars.  Hmm.

As the police move in, Lee is advised to keep Kyle talking, and he does, but in the process Lee begins to listen to what Kyle is saying and he realizes that perhaps this deranged young man has a point and he decides to use his influence to get to the bottom of the financial disaster which took Kyle’s money.

Yeah, right.  Look, I know you have a gun pointed at me, and you made me put on this vest with a bomb which you could explode at any second, but I find your story compelling, feel bad for you, and want to help you.

Er— I don’t think so.

And therein lies the central problem I had with this film.  I just didn’t believe it.  For this story to work, you really have to suspend disbelief.  A lot.

For example, take the set-up.  Kyle walks onto the set so easily he might as well have been holding a printed invitation!  Sure, he’s disguised as a delivery man, but even a guy wearing a delivery suit and carrying boxes shouldn’t be allowed such easy access to the set of a live news program.  I mean, where is the security to this building?  Watching the broadcast, I guess!

Speaking of that live broadcast, one of the stipulations that Kyle makes once he forces Lee to wear the bomb suit is that the broadcast continue live.  He wants the world to hear his story.  To make sure this is done, Kyle is watching the broadcast on his phone.  With little choice, Patty agrees and the broadcast goes on.  So far so good.  I buy this.

I also buy that the broadcast needs to be shown to the world for the story to work.  My problem is I just don’t see this as really happening.  To me, once the police get involved, that broadcast is going to be shut down.  I just don’t buy that they would allow Kyle access to the outside world.

The police are terribly ineffective here. They decide early on to sneak some sharpshooters onto the set but it takes nearly the entire movie for them to get into position, and when they do, they come up with the brilliant plan of shooting TV host Lee Gates because by doing so they will knock out the detontator, rendering the bomb harmless.

At one point a whole slew of officers converge on the set and yet they still aren’t able to apprehend Kyle.

Also, George Clooney’s Lee Gates is way too sympathetic towards Kyle.  First of all, he seems to be the type of person- brash fast-talking TV host— who would not be sympathetic towards a man like Kyle.  But more than that is the situation itself.  I understand that audiences are supposed to identify with Kyle and his story, making Lee’s sympathy towards him acceptable, but the guy has a gun which he shoots frequently, has a bomb wired to Lee’s chest, and seems completely unhinged.  I just didn’t buy the sympathy, not as fast as it happened, anyway.  Perhaps after the fact, folks might have looked back and felt bad for the guy, but during an armed standoff and hostage situation?  That’s a stretch.

The acting is quite good, though.

I’m usually hit or miss with George Clooney, depending on the role and the movie.  I liked Clooney a lot here, and he gave his character Lee Gates lots of pizzazz and energy.  More importantly, he makes Lee likeable, which considering the character’s personality isn’t the easiest thing to do.

I also enjoyed Julia Roberts as his director Patty Fenn.  She and Clooney have an easy camraderie and their characters’ relationship— when you see how much they care for each other— heightens the suspense when things get rough.

And Jack O’Connell is very good as the desperate and deranged Kyle Budwell.  You definitely feel bad for the guy, although I would stop short of giving him the keys to the city and a platform on which to tell the world his story.  Lose the gun and the bombs and maybe I’d feel differently.

The supporting cast is solid.  Caitriona Balfe is good as Diane Lester, the spokeswoman for the company which lost all Kyle’s money.  At first, she defends her employer, but as she learns more about her boss, she questions that loyalty.

Both Christopher Denham and Lenny Venito stand out in smaller roles, Denham as one of Lee’s producers and Venito as a cameraman.

However, Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from TV’s BREAKING BAD as well as countless other roles) is somewhat wooden here as Police Captain Powell.  He showed more range just using his voice as Akela in THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).  And Dominic West makes for a rather disappointing “villain” as Walt Camby, the man at the top of the “evil” company.  He looks like he walked off the set of an EXPENDABLES movie, ready to trade barbs with Sylvester Stallone.

I also enjoyed the direction by Jodie Foster, as a lot of the stand-off scenes generate the required suspense.

The best scene in the movie is when the police locate Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) and connect her to a live feed in the hope that she will talk some sense into her boyfriend.  What she says is not exactly what the police were hoping for.  It’s explosive, brutal, and on live TV for all the world to see.

And while the suspense generally builds as the movie goes along, the ending does get a bit carried away.

The screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf is a mixed bag.  The story itself is rather contrived, but the dialogue is very good.  The humor is especially sharp.  That being said, it doesn’t quite  reach the same heights as THE BIG SHORT (2015)  which had a similar message but was more successful in making its point.  The message in MONEY MONSTER isn’t quite as honed, and it gets bogged down in sentimentality.

MONEY MONSTER has its heart in the right place, but it allows this heart to get in the way  of its storytelling.

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