Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of R.J Palacio's New York Times bestseller is blatantly obvious, but the unique situation and sound execution make for an endearing two hours.
Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is a 10 year old boy starting middle school, but as he so crushingly admits in the opening line, he knows he is no ordinary kid. He has had twenty-seven facial surgeries to deal with the genetic condition he was born with, Treacher Collins Syndrome. Other than his notable looks, he is a whip-smart, curious, and terrifically funny protagonist, who loves space and Star Wars. R.J. Palacio was inspired to write her well-received novel after she and her children encountered a child with similar disfigurements at an ice cream stand, the story of which is cleverly incorporated into this fictional tale of fitting in.
Stephen Chbosky, the author and filmmaker of the brilliant Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012), packs the film with bucket loads of direct quotes from motivational posters, and the trailers make it seem there is nothing else in the movie. Though, then again, good luck finding a motivational poster with the words "Ordinary kids don't make other kids run from the playground" on it. Maybe in Transylvania. But, in all honesty, only the first thirty minutes and the last scene are slogan fests. In between that is the best section of the film, where Auggie, well represented by an already household name, Jacob Tremblay, and realistic make-up and prosthetics, is settled in with pals Justin (Noah Jupe), Summer (Millie Davis), and the classic bully and antagonist, Julian (Bryce Gheisar). The film itself feels more settled from this point onwards, with its humour finally striking a chord with the audience at my screening. Auggie's father, Nate (Owen Wilson), and Auggie himself (Tremblay) get to deliver the punchlines here, mostly at the expense of his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts).
It is also at this point where the perspective shifts from Auggie's to his sister Olivia's, affectionately known as Via. Isabela Vidovic delivers a surprising turn and her character evolves to become more prevalent and heartfelt than first expected. The dramatic execution of the changes in perspective, however, is the greatest flaw of the film, even more so than the persisting voiceovers which spell out the classic tropes of any middle or high school movie of the past four decades. At first, it appears to be a structural form. "Auggie" is etched across the black screen early on, and then his perspective of the first day of school is played out. On a couple of occasions early on, the camera quivers in the first person, and we see the scared faces of other youngsters as he would, but those moments do not last long enough. The use of visible imagination here, in particular anytime Chewbacca pops up out of nowhere, is quaint and warming.
At around the half hour point, Via's name is etched across the screen, and, in a refreshing change of tone, her perspective of the same day is played out. The two siblings undergo a similar crisis of confidence and search for friendship in middle and high school respectively. But then, after ten minutes of Via, it switches back, unannounced, to Auggie. And, from then on, there are just two short, five or ten minute bursts of highlighted viewpoints from Justin (Jupe), and Via's best friend, Miranda, another surprisingly complex turn, this time by Danielle Rose Russell. The characters all expand on the story, but the need to highlight these moments so explicitly feels bizarre when others, Auggie and Via's mother, Isabel (Roberts), especially, exert more influence on the overall proceedings.
Roberts herself is solid. There is not much more to report back on. Her performance is nuanced enough, but like the joke-obsessed father Wilson plays, her role is no more than a stereotypical, concerned mother. And while good, this is no renaissance role à la Winona Ryder in Stranger Things. As mentioned earlier, the film leans against American, school-based movie tropes. The first day of school coming and going with hope and disappointment, the canteen seating arrangements providing the basis for all friendships, the sensitive boyfriend in drama club, science fairs, pop quizzes, class trips, graduation speeches, divorced parents, corridor scuffles, the arguments between children and parents being quickly resolved by a Hallmark phrase or a tragic incident (no spoilers here, but the Pullmans do have a dog which surely, surely, must have some function other than cuteness). Anyway, all the tropes are here, but, potentially because it is rare and rather pleasant to see a more diverse representation of child protagonist, they are excusable.
The lasting impression is one of endearment. The book earned its praise due to the sweetness of the situation and characters exceeding the lack of originality, and the film is the same.