I had to go see this one alone. Which is understandable, I guess, because it looks like it could be so very bad. But the RTs were strong for both critics and audiences, and (more importantly) the movie had hung around for over four months, and was tenaciously clinging to second run screens—something an inflated RT-score can’t make happen. Still, the kids were getting the wrong vibes from it.
The story centers around Augie, a young boy with facial deformities. They’re so bad, he wears an astronaut helmet to avoid the stares. Which, you know, isn’t perhaps the best strategy for avoiding stares. The action begins with his parents preparing to send him to school for the first time—not something I personally would endorse for any child, with or without facial deformities. In fact, my first hurdle in watching this was dealing with the whole “Why would you send your kid some place where you know he’ll be treated badly?” But school gets a bye from most parents, with the left desperately needing it as a source of future voters, and the right sort of lethargically arguing that bullying, fighting and injuries build character.
The kid’s deformities aren’t that bad, actually. They’re striking. They’re odd. But they’re not unpleasant. He looks a little CGI.
Anyway, he’s an above-average kid. He’s smart and good-natured, though with bouts of face-related depression, and generally not bitter. He is self-centered, however, and occasionally downright selfish. This is nice. Writer/director Stephen Chobsky (Perks of Being a Wallflower) and his co-writers avoid the temptation to “purse puppy” Augie by making him perfect. But, in fact, he’s not even the protagonist, necessarily: The movie is more about how people react to their lives with him. The mother and the sister, e.g., get very nice character arcs here.
The overall arc of the story is perhaps too nice? The critics who disliked this mostly disliked it for that reason, from what I can tell. The refrain of “but what about…”, followed by a list of Very Necessary Things The Movie Needed To Address seems to be the big one in its detractors. As someone with some experience in this area, my response is more along the lines of “Meh”. It’s a nice story, and we can have those. Not every movie needs to be an Important Picture Addressing My Specific Concerns. If it’s “neat”, if it’s “Hollywood”, if it’s altogether slick, well, fine. I’ll take a movie about good-hearted people struggling to get by in life over some hanky-soaked self-important melodrama almost any day.
Even its relentless diversity doesn’t really detract from it because, hey, it’s, like, New York, maybe even Brooklyn, but someplace that is relentlessly diverse. Don’t expect anything outside the PC coloring box, though. (I started to wonder later if it wasn’t some sort of ablist-washing that they cast the perfectly normal Jason Tremblay in the lead role instead of a…alternatively facially configured child.)
The acting is top-notch. I might not have gone had I realized it was Julia Roberts as the mom—more out of suspicion of the kinds of movies she’s in rather than anything about her personally—and it was pleasantly surprising to see Owen Wilson after all the Wes Anderson movies we’d been seeing. Jacob Tremblay (Room) plays Augie sympathetic-but-hold-the-syrup and Izabela Vidovic is appealing as his older sister, who’s trying to navigate high school while all the attention goes to her little bro. Mandy Patinkin rounds out the cast as Jewish Santa Claus.
Good family pic. Good moral lessons, I suppose. Generally upbeat. You could do worse.