CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment
AWARDS SEASONS MEANS LULLS so December sees two quiet releases in Wonder and The Man Who Invented Christmas before the big hitters arrive soon...
Wonder – ★★★★☆
What looks on the surface to be an emotionally manipulative little tale of a boy with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder leading to physical deformities, is much more. Yes, Jacob Tremblay, known for his starring turn in Room, is sob-inducingly adorable, and the sight of anyone being mean to him is enough to shatter the coldest of hearts. But the film is interested in a wide-frame look at his life, the narrative shifting throughout to his sister Via, and then to her friend, and so on, building Wonder’s world.
Tremblay plays August, known affectionately as Auggie, as he makes the leap from home schooling to joining the other kids in a classroom. Some are kind to him, some are not. It’s the conventional, expected part of the film: his attending school for the first time was never going to be easy.
Director Stephen Chbosky is the man behind The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another young adult novel and film adaption that’s much better than its peers. He knows to pay attention to the periphery. Via’s story is less conventional; that of the sidelined sibling. She’s the character off having her own adventure while we follow the, oftentimes less interesting, protagonist. Seeing through her eyes reframes Wonder as a completely different film, about that teenage feeling of being ignored, never being the priority, of wanting to scream “hey – I’ve got problems too!”.
It’s about empathy, peer pressure, and how the right thought or action isn’t always the most obvious or easiest.
And as that frame widens, we take in Auggie’s school friend and Via’s ex-best friend, too. By building and building, it takes the focus away from what could have been a single-issue film, that of a young boy with a disorder attending school. It is about that, but it’s about empathy, peer pressure, and how the right thought or action isn’t always the most obvious or easiest.
It could have been much less and been just as commercially successful, but Chbosky has love for the film’s characters (and its audience), fully fleshing out the focal kids and their parents, too. Julia Roberts is underappreciated as Auggie and Via’s mum, putting in a physically emotional performance that shows because it doesn’t need to tell. She is great. Owen Wilson as their dad isn’t as integral to the story, but is equally believable as a kind-hearted presence who does what he can.
In the Oscar buzz season, it’s easy to miss the smaller films still worthy of your attention. Wonder is one of them.
The Man Who Invented Christmas – ★★★☆☆
‘Tis the season to release films that will one day become holiday staples, background noise for debating whether or not Brexit was worth it over turkey and pigs in blankets. The Man Who Invented Christmas is one such film, seemingly destined to become a December mid-day BBC guarantee.
Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens, struggling to work past commercial flops, in dire need of a hit for financial and reputational reasons (Dickens, not Stevens). With a deadline thrust upon him, he sets out to create A Christmas Carol, despite distractions (parents showing up) and words of warning (no one cares about Christmas).
At its simplest, it’s an excuse to tell a story that’s been told hundreds of times in a new way.
It’s a familiar tale told in a meta fashion. The film is familiar because it is the Christmas Carol story, with Dickens’s dad (Jonathan Pryce) inspiring the creation of Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). At its simplest, it’s an excuse to tell a story that’s been told hundreds of times in a new way.
But, given its festive release date and focus, it’s warm enough to justify itself. Stevens is animated and kinetic, portraying Dickens as we have never imagined him. He’s youthful, ebullient, when common perception of Victorian authors is sombre and serious. Morfydd Clark is the film’s grounding and human heart as Kate Dickens, Charles’s wife. Without her gravitational pull, everything would float off and become too much – having A Christmas Carol’s character appear and haunt Charles only works if we know it’s serving a larger purpose, which is that he needs a book that will provide for his family.
The Man Who Invented Christmas has enough charm and festive magic to carry it through. It’s no It’s A Wonderful Life (what is?) but it, like Wonder, like Paddington 2, is about being a good, welcoming person. What other message does the world need right now?
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