Saturday 20 July 2019

Kid's coming-of-age story is a class apart

Wonder-ful: Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Wonder-ful: Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

When Wonder begins, it initially seems like a dozen other inoffensively cute coming-of-age family films. A boy of 10 or so jumps up and down on his bed wearing an astronaut's helmet while telling us his story. He's Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), he's been home-schooled from an early age by his brilliant and dedicated mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), and he's terrified because he's about to start school. But something's different. "I'm not an ordinary kid," he warns us, and when he takes off his helmet we realise why.

He was born with rare facial differences and has endured 19 different correcting surgeries he sarcastically describes as "hilarious". So Auggie has more to worry about than most anxious school-starters: he knows he'll be marginalised and so do his parents. But he also needs to learn to live in the world and so his mom and dad (Owen Wilson) reluctantly leave him at the school gate.

School will be as bad as Auggie imagined, but also not so bad because he's bright, charming and has a knack of winning people over. Like the book it's based on, this film considers not just Auggie's situation, but its effect on those around him, from his devoted parents to the elder sister who's always had to live in his shade, and those who befriend him at school. Wonder is funny, life-affirming, nicely acted, sweet but never cynically so, and would make a stone weep.

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I don't think Michael Haneke has ever been accused of being life-affirming. The title of his latest film may be intended as a joke because no one seems especially jolly in this production and death hovers expectantly in the wings.

A kind of companion piece to his 2012 Palme d'Or-winning film, Amour, Happy End tells the story of a Calais construction dynasty who live in some splendour in a vast townhouse seething with resentments and despair.

Isabelle Huppert is Anne Laurent, inheritor of the family building business who's attempting to bully her drug-addicted son into competently running it when an on-site accident threatens the entire enterprise.

Anne's elderly father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is tired of life and plotting suicide. He may not have to do the job himself because when his teenage granddaughter Eve arrives in Calais, she already has a taste for killing. In the film's opening sequence, we listened to Eve's disembodied voice describing how she'd used anti-depressants to poison first the pet hamster, then her mother.

Why did she do it? We never really find out: she looks angelic, but seems dangerously dissociated, and as soon as Georges figures this out, he begs her to help him end it all.

This is arid, pitiless, beautifully photographed stuff, suffused with quiet desperation as well as Haneke's trademark wickedly dry wit. It's not his best film - that would be Amour or White Ribbon - but it's chilling and fascinating, and Huppert is superb as the brittle, controlling Anne.

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And finally, a word about Thelma, a pleasingly eccentric Norwegian thriller that reminded me of all sorts of good things, from Carrie to Hitchcock's broader horrors.

When a shy young woman called Thelma (Eili Harboe) arrives in Oslo to begin her third-level studies, she seems terrified of this new stage of her life and succumbs to what looks like epilepsy.

Her overbearing fundamentalist Christian parents survey her every move, but there are hints Thelma's childhood was not a uniformly happy one and her father in particular appears to be hiding something.

Thelma has strange and frightening telekinetic powers and when she falls in love with a female student, her conflicted emotions unleash them. It's nicely done and a slight dip in quality towards the end is forgiveable.

  • Wonder (PG, 103mins) - Four stars
  • Happy End (15A, 108mins) - Four stars
  • Thelma (16, 116mins) - Four stars

Irish Independent

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