Wishin’ and Hopin’ is the first of Wally Lamb’s books to be turned into a movie. Done by a local Connecticut company (Synthetic Cinema International of Rocky Hill) and filmed partly at Norwich Free Academy, where Lamb taught for 25 years, it premiered at the Garde Arts Center on November 23. My dad, who was an extra in the film (and gets ample screen time at the Christmas pageant), got to see the world premiere; I had to settle for its TV premier on Lifetime.
The movie and film focus on Felix Funicello (Wyatt Ralff), distant cousin of Annette Funicello (Krysta Rodriguez), during his fifth grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, culminating in the school’s Christmas pageant. Felix sets the movie in motion by disturbing a bat with a pee-shooter during Sister Dymphna’s (Cheri Oteri’s) class. The teacher goes crazy and a lay teacher from Quebec replaces her as a permanent sub. Her name is Madame Frechette (Molly Ringwald). With a theater background, she is given permission to put on a tableaux vivant for the school’s Christmas pageant. In the meantime, we witness a confession from Felix to Monsignor Muldoon (Meat Loaf) of French-kissing a poster of Annette, Felix’s disastrous TV appearance on the Ranger Andy show, and the arrival of a new student at the school from Russia. Classmates of Felix include Marion (Christopher Bogomas), a boy who’s the only black kid at school; Rosalie Twerski (Quinn McColgan), a top-of-the-class goody-two-shoes; Felix’s friend Lonny (Shawn Ervin), who is a few years older than the other boys in his class; and Zhenya Kabakova (Siobhan Cohen, in her feature film debut), the Russian student who becomes Rosalie’s nemesis and competitor for the coveted role of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Because the film was made with the knowledge that it would be shown on Lifetime, the movie is uncut and unedited for television. It also means that the film does not include the curse words found in the book, nor the use of the world “colored” to denote African-Americans (it takes place in 1964, after all). From page to screen, however, there is only one major exclusion: in the book, Felix’s mother has a similarly embarrassing episode in a bake-off; in the movie, some of those details are incorporated into the Ranger Andy storyline. On the plus side, the film adds more funny lines. There’s also a scene with a color wheel and a Christmas tree that isn’t in the novella, which neither added nor detracted from the story.
Did I mention that it’s funny? Much of this has to do with the delivery of the material, especially by the innocent Felix and the feisty Zhenya. While the big names are the adults (including voice-over narration by Chevy Chase as the adult Felix), the kids are the stars, from Felix and his sisters Frances (Sosie Bacon) and Simone (Camila Banus), to Rosalie, Lonny, and Zhenya. And, of course, there’s Marion and his famous line, “Wait’ll the NAACP hears about this!”
If there’s a fault with the film, it’s the same fault found in the book: because he skips lightly over the material, Lamb is not adept at hinting at the depth of these characters, and the film cuts scenes that hint at that depth even shorter. There’s the scene where Felix makes a joke about robbing “from the rich to give to the poor” when he gives Lonny back his whoopie cushion, only to have Lonny get angry and ask him, “What makes you think I’m poor?” In the film, once Felix clarifies that he meant the teachers are the bad guys and the students are the good guys, Lonny suddenly acts like nothing’s happened; in the book, he says, “Okay, then,” and then asks Felix, “You gonna eat that Almond Joy or can I have it?” (p. 85) which doesn’t seem as abrupt. The film also shortens the scene between Zhenya and Felix, where Felix asks her several questions, including why she left Russia. In the movie, only that last question is asked, so we lose the build-up and some details about her family that aren’t revealed until the epilogue. The scene that works best is when Madame Frechette is pressured by Rosalie’s parents (Ian Lyons and Deborah Puette) and Mother Filomina (Blanche Baker) to cast Rosalie as the Virgin Mary, when she has given it to someone else. Felix, who is serving detention, interrupts them to say what a great teacher Madame Frechette is. It’s heartwarming, and at least adds a little to Felix’s and Madame Frechette’s character development.
While I don’t think Wishin’ and Hopin’ will become a major holiday classic like A Christmas Story, it is charming and sweet enough to become a minor one. Unlike other movies that routinely show on Lifetime, you’ll actually want to see this one.