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I missed the press screening of this movie, and caught it tonight at the Angelika Film Center. Having been impressed by young actor Jacob Tremblay in Room, and having been impressed by the writer/director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)…I was looking forward to this film. It’s based on the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio.

Where Wallflower worked well for teenagers and adults, this movie will work a lot better for teenagers. In fact, it should be required viewing for them. Nothing would help spread the kindness/anti-bullying message better.

It’s about a boy named Auggie Pullman who was born with a severe facial disfigurement. He feels more comfortable wearing an astronaut helmet then enduring the stares of strangers. His mom (Julia Roberts) thinks it’s time he stops with the homeschooling and goes to school. For anybody that saw the movie Mask, you can tell where that’s headed.

The father (Owen Wilson) seems a bit more reluctant, but then, he didn’t put his career on hold to take care of a boy that’s had 27 surgeries just so the boy could breathe and see properly, let alone feel like he’s ugly. It’s smart that the script had him play a funny and caring father, without going over-the-top with it. He has a few moments with the boy that just break your heart.

Another smart thing this story does is show some of the pain other characters are going through. One of those involves the teen sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). Her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) isn’t talking to her, and she isn’t sure why. In one of many missteps the script has, her mom doesn’t give her advice on how to handle the situation. She merely says, “I had something similar happen when I was in high school. And the one thing that helped was…eating a whole bucket of Halloween candy.”

It wouldn’t have been hard for the mom to offer some good advice, or any advice, and then finish with a punchline like that. Many times, I felt characters could’ve said something more profound or interesting. Another example is a scene Via has with her late grandmother (played by the legendary Sonia Braga). It’s poorly written, and again…doesn’t offer any good advice.

Yet so much of this movie is done right, and without all the cliches you think you’ll be exposed to. For example, a situation with Via in the drama department plays out entirely different than what I saw coming — both with a boy she likes and a school play she wants to be part of; and I was crying my eyes out watching it all unfold for her (yes folks, bring a box of Kleenex).

We also get to see a young boy named Jack (Noah Jupe of Suburbicon), and some of the things he’s dealing with, and how hard it can be becoming friends with a kid that looks different. Especially when bullies have a way of turning their torment on anyone, at any time.

It was refreshing to see there are a few teachers that like Auggie (one of them being Tony and Grammy winner Daveed Diggs of Hamilton)…without preachy scenes where they lecture students on kindness or give the boy sage advice. That usually falls on the shoulders of the school principal played warmly by Mandy Patinkin.

A few scenes are manipulative, and a storyline involving Miranda was horribly done and unnecessary.

There’s an adorable dog that’s used wonderfully, although again, I wondered why when Auggie narrates about a dog being a best friend, he couldn’t have added something like “They don’t care what you look like” or…in a movie that’s fond of flashbacks, show a flashback of the boy coming home from one of his surgeries, with a face bandaged, and the dog licking his face like it’s not a problem. It’s usually a bad sign when I can think of how to make multiple scenes better, but…it still worked for me. For every scene that I thought could’ve been better, there were two or three that were terrific. One example is a scene with the parents of a bully. It was perfectly written in every regard.

The front of my shirt was drenched from crying so much. Sometimes from being sad, other times, tears of joy. Sure, it could’ve delved deeper in some areas, but this is a good family picture.

3 stars out of 5.


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