There’s a treacliness to this manipulative movie - more heartsinker than heartwarmer - about Auggie, a 10-year-old kid with a rare facial disfigurement, played in prosthetic make-up by Jacob Tremblay.
He’s been taught at home by his concerned and caring parents, played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, while successive surgeries partly improved his condition. But this brave boy must now start school, and face down the bullying and staring, without the toy astronaut helmet that he has, until now, always worn outside. Meanwhile, Auggie’s older teen sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has issues of her own: she is angry and conflicted about her parents neglecting her needs in favour of Auggie’s.
The movie appears very well intentioned, but those good intentions may be as fabricated as everything else here. Certainly Wilson’s performance is horribly fake, phoning it in with the same old halting drawl. He looked a lot more emotionally engaged with his labrador in Marley & Me than he does with any human being here. And Roberts keeps doing her dying-down-to-a-whisper voice at moments of emotional suffering.
Auggie’s face is undoubtedly shocking at first, though far less challenging than Rocky’s face in Peter Bogdanovich’s comparable 1985 film Mask. And as Auggie is a 10-year-old rather than a teenager, some harder and more adult questions about what his condition means for his emotional life never need to be asked. This movie is based on the bestselling 2012 novel by RJ Palacio, although tellingly that book was avowedly based on the author’s experience of seeing a girl with a facial disfigurement. By switching the gender, in a film about the importance of looks, the stakes are marginally but distinctly lowered.
It might have been better as a longform TV drama, like a cross between My So-Called Life and The Wonder Years, and the soapy nature of the story is at first reasonably promising. When Auggie first shows up at school, he is greeted by the kindly, wise, bearded principal (Mandy Patinkin) who has ordered a handpicked group of pupils to show him around. One is Jack, played by Noah Jupe, and another is Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Jack sees past what Auggie looks like and they become friends, though their relationship is not without its trials.
Julian’s job to be the obviously nasty, sneery bully without whom this story cannot function: the tiny Flashman underlines everyone else’s good faith. It becomes clear, however, that despite the principal having a zero-tolerance attitude towards bullying, the film has a zero-tolerance attitude towards being judgmental: it is soon implied that Julian’s behaviour is actually the fault of his smarmy parents. We finally get a glimpse of Julian, smilingly happy and forgiven, as he joins in with the general acclaim for Auggie’s courage.
As for Via, her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has returned to school from her summer break with a trendy new hairstyle and has apparently dropped her as a friend. Her only ally and confidante was her late grandmother, played in cameo by Sonia Braga, last seen as the music critic in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film Aquarius. Confused and hurt, Via throws herself into trying out for the school play, where an impossibly cute, hip, sensitive, glasses-wearing boy called Justin (Nadji Jeter) instantly falls for her - her trials are not so bad.
All of these characters, or nearly all of them, are given backstories, heralded by their names in intertitles, sympathetically letting us in to their private lives. (Not Julian though: he gets to be the bully, and that’s it.) But there are no real ironies or complexities and Miranda’s secret emotional journey is outrageously unlikely. It is a film with all the depth of a fridge magnet.