Thursday, 7 December 2017

Film Review: Wonder is as subtle as a brick to the face, but just as effective

There's something to be said for a film as well intentioned as Wonder. When your current top five films of the year include the harrowing Dunkirk, the grisly Raw and the flat out nightmarish The Killing of a Sacred Deer, sometimes it can be nice to indulge in something a bit more light and fluffy. Wonder isn't exactly an emotionally nuanced film, in fact it's about as manipulative as cinema comes in that regard, but arguing its effectiveness is like turning down a platter of comfort food - try all you like, it just ain't gonna happen.

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, of Room fame) was born with a facial deformity and has been home schooled all his life by his parents Nate and Isabel (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts). When the time comes for him to start 5th grade, his parents send him to public school the first time, putting Auggie into a whole new social situation for him to navigate. Needless to say, not everything goes to plan, and Auggie's journey through his first school year proves tougher than he or his parents could've anticipated.

Obviously, Wonder isn't all doom and gloom, soon turning itself into a powerful, heartwarming story of letting your differences shine and never being afraid to stand out from the crowd. For all of its messages about originality and the acceptance of people or things who are different, though, the film itself doesn't seem to get the memo - Wonder frequently comes across like a checklist of typical middle school cliches and predictable character beats. A girl is acting out? Surprise, her parents are fighting! A boy is being mean? Surprise, his mum is overbearing and stuck up! I'll give you three guesses what happens to the Pullman family dog.

The film executes these tropes well enough to let them slide, though, mostly through its willingness to explore the people experiencing them rather than simply assigning them to characters and moving on. Wonder is broken into loose chapters titled after character names, each one allowing us an insight into their life behind the face that we see. It's a smart move, helping to expand on Auggie's world in interesting ways and allowing the film's emotional climax to feel less contrived in how many people it affects. The chapters vary in quality from segment to segment - sister Via's is particularly touching, while friend Jack's feels a bit more forced - but they get the job done nicely. 

The backstories themselves may feel rote and stereotypical, but they're acted strongly enough to pull you back around. Julia Roberts is superb as Auggie's mother, a defining moment for her coming when her son first brings a friend home from school - telling herself she "has to be so cool tonight", Roberts plays the scene for laughs, but there's something genuinely endearing about it too. Jacob Tremblay is the indisputable star though, turning what could easily be a one note character into so much more. He finds the core of Auggie's struggles and brings them to the surface, shining a light on something much bigger without forgetting his character's individual struggles. He succeeds in both humour and heartbreak, it's tough to remember he's only 11.

Wonder may not be a film you go raving about, but it's perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon - its heart is unquestionably in the right place, even if its script never quite goes deep enough to land it up there with the greats of its kind. Its reliance on stereotypes isn't insufferable, but it's tough to ignore the way it jars with the film's own message. Supporting characters drift in and out of the story whenever the film sees fit, yet there's something to be said for how attached we feel to them so quickly. Wonder is just about effective enough, it tugs at the heartstrings and makes you feel all warm inside by the end. If the road to get there isn't exactly smooth, at least the end destination makes it all worthwhile.

In A Sentence

Its reliance on convention is frequently problematic, but Jacob Tremblay's stunning lead performance allows Wonder to overcome its flaws and succeed as an emotionally charged family film.

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