Wonder Woman wasn't the only film released in 2017 with the world "wonder" in it. And Lego Batman, Ferdinand, and My Little Pony (to name a few) haven't been the only "family" movies released the same year. Furthermore, it's very easy to forget that there's more to "family entertainment" than just cartoons.
Two live-action 2017 films (courtesy directors Todd Haynes and Stephen Chbosky, respectfully) were both based on bestselling novels. They each feature stories of young adults who may not have superpowers (although one does imagine he's a spaceman or a Star Wars character), but they have determination, real human empathy, and a desire to, shall we say, "reach for the stars," which is very rare, even in live-action movies these days. (Or maybe they just don't make enough of them lately.) Did I mention that both films include references to David Bowie's "Space Oddity"?
|Oakes Fedley in Wonderstruck|
Upon finishing Brian Selznick's amazing, illustrated bestselling novel from 2011, Wonderstruck, I decided not to see any previews or photos from Haynes' big screen adaptation. For one, I wanted to maintain that same sense of amazement, excitement and, of course, wonder, from when I read the book, especially when it got into the climax. Selznick's novel tells the stories of two deaf children--one told in words, set in the late-Seventies; the other, told in pictures, set in the late-Twenties--, their journeys to find something greater than themselves, and how their stories (set half a century apart) intersect unexpectedly.
The former story centers on Gunflint, Minnesota, resident Ben, who lost his mother in a car accident recently and now lives with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Fascinated by astrology (his mother loved Bowie's aforementioned classic track) and curating (he wonders about an Oscar Wilde quote his mother once had framed), he searches through some things in his old house next door one stormy night and stumbles upon a bookmark he believes to be a clue to the father he never knew. While trying to call the number on the bookmark, lightning strikes through the phone and Ben eventually becomes deaf. He soon sets out to New York in search of his father, and perhaps something more.
The latter story centers on New Jersey native, Rose, a deaf girl who has a knack for making paper buildings, and running to the local cinema to see the latest silent film release. She hates her home life, her stern father, and her books on sign language. She dreams of running away to New York and following in the footsteps of a famous actress (a "star," in her own way). She keeps a scrapbook of such newspaper clippings.
|Millicent Simmonds in Wonderstruck|
The way that both stories lead to the aforementioned Museum, with an attraction called the "Cabinet of Wonders," is one thing. The same goes for the back-and-forth parallels between both time periods (which can be a tad much at times, like a few too many cliffhangers). But the way these narratives pay tribute to (and respect) the deaf community is remarkable. And it's a credit to Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay, as well as the original novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"), Haynes, composer Carter Burwell, actresses Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, up-and-comer Oakes Fedley (Pete's Dragon), and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (deaf in real life), for their contributions to it.
Although I prefer the book, the film does stand on its own very well. Part period piece and part silent film, Wonderstruck is visual poetry and reminds us of the power of cinema and pictures to tell a story. The overall effect is nothing short of remarkable and, yes, wonderful.
|Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder|
Based on the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is about a young boy with a facial disorder, who goes to a public school for the first time. And as opposed to paying homage to cinema and the deaf community as Wonderstruck did, this story pays tribute to a different community of individuals and social "outcasts," and celebrates the #choosekind movement that everybody and anybody can choose to be a part of, without getting too preachy.
"I know I'm not an ordinary kid," says the titular Auggie Pullman, whose facial scars have been the result of over twenty hospital surgeries since he was born. Said hospital visits have helped Auggie to eat, breath, and try to live as normal a life a possible. And yet, he prefers wearing his space helmet to escape the potential harsh realities that are out in the outside world.
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play the parents of Jacob Tremblay's Auggie (who resembles a young Eric Stoltz from Mask). Mom Isabel (who calls Auggie a "wonder") has homeschooled him for so long, that she believes it's time he gets out into the world and experience life on his own, despite doubts from dad Nate. It's clear both parents and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) try to prepare him for school in advance. And though he's invited by the school principle (Mandy Patinkin) to take a tour with current students, it's clear most of the students initially just show up to "play nice." The story that follows tells shows how they really feel, or how they begin to feel, about Auggie. Kids and even adults are, after all, different--and even good--at masking their true feelings. "I can't wait until Halloween," yearns Auggie.
|(l-r) Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, |
Izabela Vidovic, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder
Wonder brilliantly makes the bold choice to show not just Auggie's story, both the stories of those he impacts: his sister Via, who feels neglected by her parents because of Auggie ("My mom and dad and I are all planets orbiting the sun [or, son]"); his new friend Jack Will, who, at first, helped Auggie for his mom's sake but then grew to like him as a friend; and Via's estranged friend Miranda, who considers the Pullmans a second family from her own divorced family. Even the family dog, Daisy, who was there for Auggie after each of his hospital visits, is given a bit of limelight. ("Real friends are hard to find," Auggie says of her.) What's great about Roberts and Wilson's involvement, for one, is you don't even consider their star power. They are their characters.
The advice that Auggie receives throughout the story may sound preachy to some. "If you don't like who you are, just picture who you want to be," says Nate. "You can't blend in when you were born to stand out," says Via, who also informs Auggie that "there's nothing we can do about other people but ourselves." Says Isabel, pointing to her face, "This is the map that shows us where we've been, and [pointing to her heart] this is the map that shows us where we're going." It's a credit to director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and co-writers Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, who handle the material with care by (again) not sugarcoating it, but really grounding it in reality. Teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs)'s class precepts, for instance, speak to all kinds of kids and adults, and not just those with disabilities, which inspires classmate and new friend Summer (Millie Davis). "I want some nice friends for a change," she states. With all the hatred and cynicism currently going on in the world currently, this story and movie is what audiences (especially families) may want and need, too.
|Jacob Tremblay in Wonder|