Wonder; or The Burden of Expectation

There's a sentiment I try to watch films by which has probably been expressed much more lucidly by someone much smarter than me, but I'll try anyway: "judge a film by what it's trying to be, not what you wish it was."

That is, a film cannot be at fault because you went into it expecting one thing and actually got another. There's inevitably some nuance around this, with some trailers going out of their way to obscure or outright deny certain plot points or themes - see, for example, the Mandarin debacle surrounding Iron Man 3[1] - but the idea of judging a film by its trailer is something for a whole other blog post. In a lot of cases, it's a fairly self-evident assumption to make: you're not going to get a barnstorming thriller out of Notting Hill, and you're not going to get a heartwarming depiction of young love in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But sometimes, it can be a lot harder to separate expectation and reality.

Take, for example, Wonder. I'd been waiting for Wonder to be released for so long that I'd entirely forgotten why I was excited for it in the first place. Featuring one of today's most promising child actors, Jacob Tremblay, Wonder depicts what happens to Auggie Pullman, a 10 year old with a severe facial deformity, and his family when he attends school for the first time. Emboldened by some excellent surreal points in the first act, a thought occurred to me about a third of the way through the film: wouldn't it be brilliant if Wonder did for this genre, the genre of families dealing and eventually overcoming medial and emotional tragedies, what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did for the "terminal teen" genre? That is, to be the knowing, winking version of a film in that genre, having its cake and eating it by still having the emotional heft.

In the end, no. Wonder was not that film. Its self-awareness levels dropped, it picked easy paths where another film would have picked more difficult paths, and it largely followed the standard template. Yet, anchored by some excellent performances, strong direction, and a screenplay which just managed to stay on the right side of having every line be the equivalent of a motivational poster strapline, Wonder managed to be engaging, funny and heart-warming. Not only was it not the film I wanted it to be, it wasn't even trying to be the film I wanted it to be.

And that was just fine with me. Why should it try to be what I want it to be? A film is, ultimately, a reflection of the director. I'm not a full-on proponent of the auteur theory, but by and large, most aspects of a film are viewed through the director's lens. It is what the director at the very least attempted to make. It means what the director meant it to mean. And it's that sense of identity that people respond to. This holds from indies to franchees: Thor: Ragnarok was good because it was made by Taika Waititi, not because it was a Thor film; Avengers: Age of Ultron was less good because Marvel didn't really let Joss Whedon be Joss Whedon. It's not entirely that simple, but it's a start.

The inevitable conclusion of deliberately trying to make a film that some people would want is deliberately trying to make a film that most people would want, and that way lies madness. You end up appealing to the lowest common denominator, ever concerned that the more edges your film has, the fewer people will be on board with the whole thing. That's how you lose what made people respond to them to begin with. The ideal must surely be for a director to make the film they want to make, and let people appreciate it for itself.

In this case, that's just what the director did; as the credits rolled, I remembered instantly why I was excited for Wonder: it had been written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose prior and debut film was The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, one of my favourite films of this decade. In hindsight, it was obviously Chbosky - no-one quite depicts school life like he does, especially in how he frames and shoots scenes in locker-filled school corridors, which is expertly done. I may have wanted a twist on the genre, but it turns out what I wanted more than anything else was just to have another Stephen Chbosky film, and that's just what he gave me.

  1. For what it's worth, as someone with no emotional attachment to the original comics, I thought the depiction of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was bold, exciting, hilarious, entirely in line with director Shane Black's form, and exactly what elevated the film above the rest of the standard Marvel fare at the time. Don't @ me. ↩︎