Tuesday, November 21, 2017

CHOOSE KIND: a review of "Wonder"

Based upon the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Screenplay Written by Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad and Stephen Chbosky
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
**** (four stars)

I really did not want this to be a movie.

Always with screen adaptations of literature, we run into the endless battle of whether the movie was better than the source material or vice versa, often with the attitude that the source material will forever emerge as the victor. As for me, I have never felt so strictly about this articular quandary as I have always said, books are books and movies are movies.

That being said, I do find it easier to keep the two mediums separated by reading the book after having seen the film, instead of the other way around for the simple reason that if the movie that I have already conjured within my brain while reading does not match the filmmaker's interpretation, the conflict is more apparent with me.

In the case of R.J. Palacio's stunningly beautiful novel Wonder, which tells the tale of a 10 year old facially disfigured boy's first year away from home in school with his 5th grade peers, the book struck me so powerfully that not only was it one of the finest I have ever read, I just did not wish for it to be visualized, especially as Palacio purposefully never went into any explicit details as to how the hero of the story actually looked, leaving every visualization up to the imaginations of every single reader. To have a filmmaker create a film where he or she would definitively define what the boy looked like felt to nearly upend what Palacio so deftly created. Perhaps this book just might be one of those books that just shouldn't have been adapted to the movies. To leave everything unseen, except for in the mind's eye, felt to be right for this story and characters.

And then, the name of Stephen Chbosky entered the picture...

Stephen Chbosky first appeared upon my personal radar when he emerged with "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012), the outstanding screen adaptation of his own novel, first published in 1999. It was a film of such powerful empathy, tenderness, pain and truth to the adolescent experience as a whole and to the life changing and sometimes, lifeline nature of friendship and being accepted and loved unconditionally by others. When I discovered that Chbosky woud be the one to bring Palacio's novel to cinematic life, I became curious as he seemed to be the perfect fit for this specific material. Even so, I remained skeptical. 

Now that it has been released and I have now seen the results, I am so very happy to say that not only has R.J. Palacio's vision been enormously preserved upon the silver screen, Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" is an achingly beautiful, richly tender, vividly empathetic and undeniably truthful film that is an entertaining as it is essential viewing for families, schools and frankly, even adults.

"Wonder" is the film that I do believe that we all need to experience right now, as we are each shouldering public and private pains in a world that has only increased in its vitriolic ugliness and its shameful inability to offer any sense of understanding and compassion for anyone different than ourselves.  In essence, in a world where the concept of kindness feels to be almost synonymous with "weakness," Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" demonstrates, fully without hyperbole or manufactured situations and plot contrivances, that to choose kindness, represents one of the strongest feats any one of us could possibly accomplish. And furthermore, it rightfully earns every single tear...and I shed many of them while watching this precious film.

Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" stars an excellent Jacob Tremblay as August "Auggie" Pullman, a boy born with a severe facial deformity and who has spent much of his first 10 years in and out of hospitals, undergoing one surgery after another as well as being home-schooled by his Mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts).

Regardless of the fact that Auggie loves to play video games, possesses a strong aptitude for Math and Science, harbors an especially sharp sense of humor and adores all things "Star Wars" (he even wears a short Jedi Padawan pony tail), his disfigured face is a barrier between himself and his ability to find and gain friendships. And so, to hide his face from the world, Auggie wears an astronaut helmet as a source of security and self-preservation.Yet Auggie's perceptions and day-to-day reality will soon be challenged as he enters the Beecher Prep private school for his year in 5th grade. 

"Wonder" chronicles Auggie's first year in school as well as the lives and times of his devoted Father, Nate (Owen Wilson), his high school aged sister Via (an exquisite Izabela Vidovic), her boyfriend Justin (Nadji Jeter) and estranged best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) plus Auggie's first classmates Jack Will (Noah Jupe), Summer (Millie Davis), Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and instructors from Principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) and the young, precept delivering English teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs).

If you are completely unfamiliar with the story of Auggie Pullman, I am certain that the plot of the film might make you fear that what we have is an experience that will make you queasy from the overwrought sentimentality and forced manipulation of your emotions. I completely understand that perception as this film could have disastrously gone the route of the the most treacly Hallmark/Lifetime movie you have ever seen.

Thankfully, Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" is more than decidedly not that sort of film in any regard whatsoever as he has created a most wise and wistful film that smartly allows every piece of its drama to unfold as naturally as the way life is lived. Just as he accomplished so beautifully with "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,"--and for that matter, a film very much in the same wheelhouse as Peter Bogdanovich's "Mask" (1985)--Chbosky never forces his hand, nor overplays even one moment, understanding and always ensuring that the drama inherent to a story such as this one is untainted by false sentiments.

For this film to work at its very best, the honesty of the piece desperately needs to shine through and Stephen Chbosky, heroically aided by his terrific cast and grounded firmly by the source material, has made a gentle, deeply touching yet powerfully honest film during which we are all forced to ask of ourselves the very same hard questions this particular cast of characters are asking of themselves regarding issues of friendship, prejudice, bullying, jealousy, envy, romance, wealth, class, and of course, the choice we are all faced with when asked to just be kind.

Just as with the novel, Chbosky allows the story to spiral from Auggie to a variety of the film's additional and supporting characters, giving us a larger sense of perspective, of taking some time to walk in another person's shoes. It is here where Chbosky's non-judgmental approach works so effectively as each new detail of one character informs the film as a whole, therefore delivering a tapestry of characters who are fleshed out and compelling enough to demand their own movies--much like what was so brilliantly accomplished in Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" earlier this year.   

Even with the cruel actions of the character Julian, Stephen Chbosky never allows his empathy to waver, for in his storytelling eye, every character deserves attention and understanding as to why they are who they are, and just as with author Jay Asher's brutal, haunting young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007), "Wonder" showcases deftly the undeniable truth that everyone is shouldering some sort of baggage, housing some private pain, some personal cross to bear and if we all just took a moment to try and elicit some compassion, what a better world we would possibly have overall...or at least a world where we tried to understand each other.

Certainly with Auggie, his personal cross is unavoidable as the world is able to see, and therefore react (or not), to what he looks like, making his astronaut helmet a source of protection, of course. Yet, and just as with Justin Tipping's outstanding "Kicks" (2016), the image of the astronaut carries a symbolism so ever shifting and lyrical that "Wonder" is often more poetic than it may appear to be. For as often Auggie's astronaut represents isolation and escape, it also represents deliverance and euphoria, and Stephen Chbosky executes every moment with a confident, sympathetic hand that never fails his characters and film by nosediving into the maudlin.

Now, I have previously stated that "Wonder" earns every tear that will undoubtedly be shed while watching the film. I have to announce to you that I, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, cried often throughout the film and I have to say that the overall effect was not the feeling of being manipulated but the feeling of being cleansed.

You see, as far as I am concerned, "Wonder" did not exist to get the audience to the one scene where one's personal floodgates could be opened. For me, I found myself tearing up solely through the multi-faceted compassion that Chbosky put into place from beginning to end, which meant that mere moments inspired the tearful response I had. In doing so, "Wonder" is one of the bravest films of the year as it is unafraid to not just wear its cinematic heart upon its sleeves, it is a film that flies in the face of the darkness that is enormously prevalent in the world, including the very films that house our cineplexes.

Just think about the state of the movies in the 21st century, certainly reflective of our collective psychological and spiritual status but also, one could argue, a state of almost hipster fueled notions of what is considered to being seen as "artful" or "compelling" or "provocative." Just because a film is seen as being "dark," it does not make said film any more mature or even as adult as other films that are not as overtly grim. In some cases, those sorts of films are flat-out juvenile in their approach and even self-congratulatory arrogance.

With "Wonder," Stephen Chbosky has helmed a most artful PG rated film. While essentially directed towards an audience on the cusp of adolescence, this film is designed for absolutely anyone, anywhere of any stage of life that possesses an open, beating heart and is more than deserving of a film that is not only empathetic, but one that inspires and is worthy of discussion and debate, that is intelligent, as well as conceptually and emotionally complex. There are no easy answers, so to speak, within "Wonder," for even the one answer that the story promotes is precisely the very answer that we all so often find incredibly difficult to enact in the real world. Easy to say, so hard to do but unquestionably the right thing.

Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" fully exceeded any expectations that I may have had for the film and it definitely extinguished any reservations I previously held. It is rare to find films these days that could meet any potential viewer at any conceivable state of mind, body and spirit and hold a clear-eyed conversation in an open, honest, even-handed and inoffensive yet highly provocative fashion.  It is a film where its supreme warmth emanates from the screen and travels straight to your heart, hopefully inspiring all who see it to indeed "choose kind" in this precariously turbulent world.

"Wonder" is one of my favorite films of 2017.

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