REVIEW / DRAMA
114 minutes/Now showing/ 3/5 stars
The story: August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has been homeschooled by mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) all his life, but his parents think that with fifth grade approaching, he should be enrolled in a normal school. At issue is his face: He was born with malformations that have required facial reconstruction. Meanwhile, his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) is dealing with her own adolescent issues. Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same title.
The tears, they will stream like monsoon drains in December within minutes of the opening scene.
Brave little Auggie (Tremblay) runs the gauntlet at school, which works up the audiences’ emotions, especially when he looks up with his enormous, wet eyes.
Nearly beating him in his ability to act with his eyes is Julia Roberts, playing his mother Isabel, whose job is to take in his suffering and reflect it in her equally large, equally moist peepers.
Director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky opts for frequency over intensity. The scenes that will turn on the waterworks are short. But he knows which buttons to push: It might be the sight of Auggie’s tiny frame, seen from the back, curled on the bed, or a wide shot of the boy eating his lunch alone.
Chbosky lingers on the scene just long enough for the pathos to register, then moves on, perhaps because he knows another tissue-dabber is coming along in five minutes.
The element of shameless manipulation is always lurking in the background, ready to pounce. This movie is a masochist’s paradise and, like Chbosky’s coming-of-age drama The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012), is destined to be a cult favourite.
The inner life of a small child is a fragile place to hang a two-hour feature, so the story is split into chapters that examine the lives of supporting characters.
Interestingly, two chapters focus on villains, the tormentors of Auggie and his sister Via (Vidovic), to explain that their actions come not from malice, but weakness. This story’s virtue is that the baddies do not undergo a third-act conversion to become good; they were always good inside and needed someone of Auggie’s purity of spirit to help them find their better selves.
Neither does the story aim for anything more than for Auggie to find acceptance.
Its modest, low-stakes approach, Chbosky’s craftsmanship and fine performances from Tremblay and Roberts make this a Christmas season standout for all ages.