- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Given the political climate that has seemingly permeated everything, it is hard to look at 2017 and say that it has been much of an improvement over 2016; in a lot of ways, it’s arguably been worse. But while partisanship and awful revelations coming to light may come to define 2017 as a whole when people look back at it, I think a case could be made that when people look back at the films of 2017, one word will be prominently featured: wonder. There are no less than five films from 2017 where the word “wonder” is prominently featured. Wonder Woman became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was a well-reviewed but not widely seen biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman. Woody Allen’s latest forthcoming film is titled Wonder Wheel, scheduled for a December release.
This fall, though, two family dramas hit the cinemas with young kids at the center of their stories: Wonder and Wonderstruck. Both are adaptations of books. They’re also two more movies in what has been a standout year for films featuring young, talented actors (The Florida Project, It, Okja, Logan). Sadly, Wonderstruck has been received with little fanfare on a very limited release schedule. It only ran for a week near me when its theater count peaked at 261 and it has yet to even top $1 million in revenue. Meanwhile, Wonder has exceeded box office expectations and going strong heading into its second weekend. These two films have followed very different paths at the box office, but they share some similarities and I found myself equally won over by both films.
Wonder is the story of August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a boy who was born with a rare genetic defect that resulted in him needing over twenty surgeries and left him with facial features that are noticeably different from other kids. After being homeschooled through 4th grade, his parents make the decision that 5th grade is a good transition year for him to enter a nearby prep school.
The film follows Auggie through his year in 5th grade, and the various ups and downs of being the new kid who stands out from the crowd. Refreshingly, it also provides well-rounded supporting characters for nearly every major supporting role, including Auggie’s parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s best friend at school Jack Will (Noah Jupe), and even Via’s estranged best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Tremblay, who wowed in Room, is hardly recognizable, and is such a talented young actor.
I particularly appreciated the care shown to Via’s story, as the older sister who did not have any health issues and by default seemed to take a backseat to the kid who required their parents’ attention for so many years. And there is also the class bully, a rich kid who mercilessly mocks Auggie’s looks for much of the year. In probably 90% of films like this, he would be one-dimensional, but even he has depth and the audience is given a peek behind the curtain with him. Auggie is the central character of the story, but everyone gets moments to shine, it’s a terrific ensemble performance, including a great little role for Mandy Patinkin as the school principal we all wish we had growing up.
What Wonder gets the most right is the relationships and the ebb and flow of those relationships. Yes, in relation to Auggie, it is about him venturing out into the world and finally interacting with more and more people. He is obsessed with astronauts and in the beginning of the film walks around with an astronaut’s helmet on almost all the time. By the end of the film, the helmet has been abandoned and he has almost literally come out of his shell. But with everyone else, too, the relationships just ring so true. Auggie’s parents have arguably one of the best marriage relationships I have seen on screen in recent memory. There are some great family dynamics on display in this film, particularly between Roberts as Isabel and Vidovic as Via. That mother-daughter dynamic is pretty great and gets its own story arc.
Wonderstruck is also a film that rings emotionally true when it comes to relationships. Its story is mostly centered on Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy from Minnesota who lost his mother (Michelle Williams) and then loses his hearing in a freak accident. He travels to New York City in search of his father. The film also mixes in the story of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl in search of her mother (Julianne Moore). Ben’s story takes place in 1977 while Rose’s story is from 1927.
Directed by Todd Haynes, Wonderstruck is a visual delight. He faithfully recreates the 1927 scenes to resemble a silent film, as Rose’s mother is actually a silent film star. And how he films the 1977 version of New York City closely resembles films from that time period. Simmonds is amazing as Rose. She has a very impressionable face. I was pleasantly surprised to find out after the fact that she is deaf life her character; it’s nice to see a role like that go to someone who is actually deaf. Equally great is Fegley, who was in last year’s Pete’s Dragon.
Her adventure into city mirrors Ben’s, who immediately has a tougher time of it than her, getting robbed almost as soon as he steps foot onto the street after taking a bus from Minnesota to New York City. He soon stumbles across a kid name Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose father works at the Museum of Natural History. Much of the film is spent in the museum, as Ben and Jamie eventually bond over the course of the day. Their instant connection of friendship felt so genuine and authentic; Ben, a kid in a strange place, Jamie, a kid without any real friends. It’s interesting that their freshly formed friendship is almost immediately tested because of poor communication between them, and the reason for that miscommunication is not because of the hearing barrier between them but because kids simply don’t always know how to express themselves or do the right thing all the time.
Much of the film is sent searching for connection and relationships. Rose desires a relationship with her absent mother; Ben is looking for a father that he never knew to fill the void left by the loss of his mother. Even Jamie is just looking for someone that will be his friend. How the story resolves Ben’s and Rose’s stories in the end is emotional and moving, but not at all manipulative.
Really, that is what makes both of these films stand out for me, they’re sincere and earnest without being manipulative or cloying. It also helps that Trembley and Fegley are two of the more impressive young child actors that have come along in recent years (you could add Jaeden Lieberher to that list too). Both of these films are big on heart. They’re award-worthy films the whole family can see and enjoy. Go see Wonder. If Wonderstruck is still playing near you, check it out. If it’s not playing nearby, look for it to pop up on Amazon Prime in a few months.
Wonder Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars
Wonderstruck Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars