Aided by poignant performances, Wonder is whimsical yet emotionally resonant, sending everyone a positive message about seeing past people’s appearance.
At some points in Wonder, characters talk about how, when a child has congenital physical deficiencies, others are influenced by the emotional gravity of his or her life. That planets revolve around the Sun—not the daughter—is the situation of the Pullman family, who lives in North River Heights, Manhattan. Their Sun is the 11-year-old August, or Auggie, played by the wondrous Jacob Tremley. After Room’s huge success, this is the first role worthy of his rising talent.
In the opening, director Stephen Chbosky keeps Auggie’s face behind his astronaut helmet for a few minutes. The movie sends a clear statement: what we look like doesn’t determine our worth to the world. After hearing what he thinks of and does with his love for science and his family, we like the boy for who he is. That’s when we see his face, swollen with lumps of flesh. Auggie was born with a facial deformity that transformed his family ever since. Because of Auggie’s 27 reconstructive, life-saving surgeries—whose mementos are pinned on a wall, his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) gave up her Master degree to take care of him. Auggie has been homeschooled by her until now, when he moves to the fifth grade.
The three supporting actors around Tremblay make for a cozy family. Owen Wilson, without any “woah,” gives daddy Nate devotion and a comical padding for him to communicate with Auggie more effectively. Though dads are not cool by default—particularly when the mom already is—Nate is always there for the boy when Isabel is distracted by her resumed thesis or Via’s teen angst. Opposite Wilson is Roberts, who portrays a determined, sensible half of the parenting duo behind Auggie. When her son goes out to the new world, the unoccupied Isabel returns to her career as a book illustrator—but not before a wistful moment in their study room. It’s hard for her, too, and the sadness feels natural. We will soon visit the daughter Olivia, or Via (Izabela Vidovic) in her own story.
For Trembley to utilize his terrific acting, Auggie is written with a rich personality. He’s an avid Star Wars fan with toy lightsabers and imagined scenarios with Chewbacca. Later events dive into his love for Boba Fett (who suitably dons a mask) and his Padawan braid that a kid makes him ashamed of. His habit of judging people from their shoes, childish as it is, provides insights into certain characters. Both humor and heartbreak become palpable via Tremblay’s sweet treble and big eyes, which convey his exact feelings when Auggie looks upward or downward.
At his new school is a bigger world that expands Auggie’s mindset. There are friendly moments of ice-breaking. There are intense chapters of violence. There are several understanding teachers, an amiable headmaster Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), and school friends that Auggie never imagined how diverse they can be in personalities and attitudes towards him. Without the astronaut helmet shielding him from mean banter, Auggie walks into quick glances and ungenerous gazes. Some kids stay away from him to avoid a “plague.”
Following his dad’s advice for science class, Auggie experiences the teacher’s favor and befriends a nice boy named Jack (Joah Nupe). He is from a working-class family with an affectionate mom, and Nupe’s earnest, reflective performance creates a surprisingly layered character in his scenes with Tremblay. Auggie and Jack bond over amusing lunch breaks and lightsaber fights, attracting the prejudiced eyes of Julian (Bryce Gheisar). This pompous “trust-fund kid” is ready to step on Auggie with his mocking and name-calling (“Barf Hideous,” “Gollum”). As expected, the day is far from easy, and the Pullmans’ dinners that bookend it are telling. One is full of laughter and family in-jokes (everyone tickles Auggie), and the other abruptly ends after a question about how Auggie’s first day was.
Wonder is adapted from R.J. Palacio’s best-selling novel, which was inspired by a Natalie Merchant song of the same name. A feel-good movie, it uses no searing emotions or ironic tragedies. It moves at a breezy pace through conventions as Chbosky relies on his excellent cast to advance the tropes. The story starts by zooming into Auggie before jumping to the perspectives of people around him and going full circle in the ending. With a conscious touch, Chbosky elevates many accessible jokes. My favorite is the bit about a floppy disk, which could have been lazy but instead deepens Isabel’s dignity and motherly sacrifice.
So how can the film tell stories from other points of view? If you watched Chbosky’s 2008 adaptation of his book—the soulful Perks of Being A Wallflower—you can guess his method. Voice-over narration leads our way into the minds of four other characters. Auggie’s condition ripples to others around him, even extending far as her sister’s best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). She was close to both Via and Auggie, but after a summer camp, she shuts Via out of her life. For the friendship with Jack, a misunderstanding ensues after unthoughtful words. This situation gives Jack a space to grow while Auggie struggles with trust issues. Fortunately, he finds comfort in Summer (Millie Davis), a sympathetic classmate who doesn’t mind the “plague” cacophony when she shares a table with the lonely boy.
The most important perspective is that of Via, who feels neglected by her parents and relies on the memories of her late grandma, who always believed in her. For years she’s been literally putting herself into the background—Via silently walks behind the other three—as a selfless way of supporting her parents and little brother. Counter-balancing her puzzling issues with her parents and Miranda is her budding relationship with Justin (Nadji Jeter). The assertive boy is attracted to Via’s shyness and urges her to sign up for the drama club. In Via’s lies to him about being an only child, there seems a short-lived wish that Auggie was never born, or at least a moment Via chooses to ignore her brother’s existence. This is the first perspective after Auggie’s, and also the most developed storyline. Modest yet stirring, Vidovic’s portrayal of frustration and loneliness never overstates its true emotions.
As the script runs out of dramatic mileage with conflicts solved and everyone ready to hug and bond, the last third turns sluggish and choppy. Some disjointed scenes touch upon larger issues about redemption, forgiveness, and parents' influence on their kids’ innocent outlook. However, Chbosky gives up restraint and packs mandatory events from the books into rushed, unearned strides to closure. This is a weak approach compared to what the movie accomplishes for most of its runtime.
Auggie faces direct problems with school friends, but the more complex matter is about his family. They must adjust to his life, and this routine sometimes leads to unspoken pain. What makes Wonder better than a typical feel-good movie is that Auggie will learn to be charitable to others while achieving his happiness and intellectual ambition. It’s not always about him in this life. Short speeches from adults and the “percepts” by an attentive English teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs from the acclaimed musical Hamilton), help Auggie grow out of his understandable immaturity and reaching out to kids in the audience with humor and warmth. Again, Chbosky adheres to safe conventions as these lessons let kids get ahold of accessible, positive ideas. Aggie’s condition doesn’t hold him higher than constructive criticism when the naive boy experiences hardship without acknowledging the struggle of others. He’s still a kid after all.
In a sense, we all are like Auggie. Don’t stare, but look at us with a fair judgment for our strengths and weaknesses. Goodness is a virtue that needs teaching along with the natural growth of character. Aided by poignant performances, Wonder is whimsical yet emotionally resonant, sending everyone a positive message about seeing past people’s appearance.
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