Starting school is a tough enough time for everyone, but it’s all the more tougher for young Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has been home-schooled until grade five because he has a severe facial difference as a result of a genetic disorder. Now, his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), having decided to enrol him in a private school for the sake of socialisation, Auggie, a bright kid who likes science, Star Wars, and Halloween, must negotiate life outside the protective bubble of his family for the first time ever.
Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s novel by director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallfower), Wonder traces a year in the life of not just the precocious and eminently likable Auggie, but also the people around him – we get separate threads from the point of view of his 15 year old sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who feels like she’s always coming second to her special needs brother; his new best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who likes Auggie but bends to the pressure of schoolyard bullying; his mother, who put her life plans on hold to care for him, and more.
But it’s Auggie who is the centre of the film, a smart, charming kid bearing up the weight of being visibly and permanently outside of the norm as best he can. He is, of course, not unaware of how other people see him; “Why do I have to be so ugly?” he wails at one point, and it’d take a particularly hard heart not to be moved by the poor kid’s plight.
Indeed, Wonder expertly aims for the heart at every turn. It’s openly manipulative stuff, but nonetheless effective, even if it occasionally strays past the point of plausibility or taste (there’s a bit of business with the family dog seemingly inserted because it’s been a good 15 minutes since we’ve had a bit of a cry). The whole thing is buoyed by a great cast, a wonderfully warm tone, and a generally optimistic attitude; yes, there are bullies and anxieties and life can deal you a stunningly unfair hand, but Wonder takes place in a world where underdogs are championed and goodness of heart trumps social advantage – there’s value in spending time in a world like that, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.
In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).
Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.
These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.
While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.
Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.