Borg vs McEnroe and Wonder are not especially similar films. The former is, as you might’ve guessed, a retelling of the 1980 rivalry between tennis stars Björn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). The latter’s about a young boy, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), with a facial deformity and his family (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as his parents, Izabela Vidovic as his sister). I’m grouping them together in this review not because of any similarities in their style or subject matter, but because each exemplifies the limitations of the star rating system.
I’ve tried to treat stars as a purely subjective system since adopting them for this site a couple years ago; simply put, the more I like a film, the more stars it gets (and vice versa). But that’s a challenge with films like Borg vs McEnroe and Wonder because, frankly, I don’t like them much, but I think for their target audience – tennis fans and preteens/their parents, respectively – the films will be a hit. If you want to judge these two films on whether they achieved what they set out to, they’re unquestionably successes. But that doesn’t mean I liked them.
Borg vs McEnroe failed to win me over for the simple reason that I’m not overly interested in tennis. A couple months ago, writing on Battle of the Sexes, I noted that tennis was an inherently uncinematic sport. I stand by that. Though I’m not a tennis fan, I have seen my fair share of gripping matches, and they’re all defined by surprise. I’m less interested in watching, say, Serena Williams casually deconstruct an opponent than a tight match where the outcome remains uncertain throughout. Exciting tennis matches establish a rhythm then find thrills in the rejection of that rhythm: an unexpected break here, a remarkable return there. Like other great spectator sports – I’m thinking soccer and cricket – you have to be bored before you can be roused.
Problem is, commercial cinema isn’t built for that. Borg vs McEnroe features a bunch of tennis matches, most notably the 1980 final between Borg and McEnroe. But, much like Battle of the Sexes, it literally fast forwards past any moment that’s not inherently dramatic to try and accentuate the thrill of an unexpected point. But because we’ve fast forwarded past the boring stuff, any drama is sapped by our understanding that we’ve centred on this moment for a reason. For example, there’s a string of unconverted match points in the Wimbledon finals, but they don’t thrill like they would on centre court because we know – from the framing, the music, the pacing – that this isn’t the end of the match yet.
Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that I wasn’t invested in either Borg or McEnroe winning. Director Janus Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl seemingly construct Borg vs McEnroe with the expectation that you’re already invested in these two men (and, therefore, you’re of course already aware of the outcome of the match – which I wasn’t). The film takes a ‘both sides’ approach with Borg favoured slightly, exploring the psychology of the two men through flashbacks to their childhood while hastily cobbling together character arcs.
As much as Gudnason and LaBeouf (whose offscreen persona aligns perfectly with young McEnroe’s) do good work, I was left with a clinical detachment from the final match. If you’re a big tennis fan, I have no doubt this procedural examination of such an important match and the two men behind will win you over game, set and match. But despite the resolutely competent filmmaking on display, I was left underwhelmed.
I was similarly unimpressed by Wonder, but I can much more readily see that it’ll be a killer with its target audience. At my last school, I used to teach a weekly class called Personal Development. It wasn’t so much a subject as an opportunity to introduce students to life skills. In the younger grades, the focus was on understanding others; to recognise that when, say, someone treats you poorly, it’s likely a reflection of their own troubles rather than purely about you. (Lots of iceberg metaphors, as you’d expect.) This is something that your average adult is (hopefully) well aware of, but this kind of empathy can be radical for young teenagers. And that kind of radical empathy is exactly what Wonder’s about.
The trailers for the film promise a heartwarming tearjerker about a boy who can’t manage to fit in. We expect to see Auggie cope with the teasing and discrimination of his peers before winning them over with his resilience and charm. It is that, sorta. But Wonder, per its ‘choose kind’ campaign, has a broader, more sympathetic approach. The film also tells the story of Auggie’s sister, Via, and her own struggles with confidence after her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), shuns her. And of Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the boy who befriends and then betrays Auggie. And even of Miranda, revealing her own personal struggles, her jealousy of Via’s life and privilege. Wonder understands – and makes it audience understand – that everyone is insecure, everyone wants some part of someone else’s life, everyone feels inadequate in some way: and that’s okay.
I’d love to have had this film to screen to my Personal Development classes. It’s a perfect illustration of how empathy makes lives better, and how people sometimes are hurtful for reasons that you can’t immediately understand. Specifically, it’s not at all subtle about these goals. Mandy Patinkin, playing Auggie’s affable principal, gravely intones that there are “two sides to every story.” Via’s story features not one, not two, but three separate explanations of how “the son is the centre of family’s universe.”
This sort of overbearingly obvious filmmaking is a bit of bummer as a film critic hoping for some nuance, some subtext. Combined with some emotional manipulation (you leave that fucking dog alone, screenwriters), it left me exhausted and little underwhelmed. But just as I’d recommend Borg vs McEnroe to tennis fans, I’d readily recommend any family with children aged between about six to sixteen head along together to see Wonder: to learn something and to feel something … even if I didn’t.