Based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio, Wonder focuses on Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a fifth-grader going to school for the first time after being home-schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts). Auggie has Treacher Collins’ syndrome and so, despite numerous surgeries, does not quite look like the other kids. At Beecher Prep he faces the shocked stares of his schoolmates and the bullying antics of some, but of course this is schmaltz 101 so we know he will triumph above it all.
From the sounds of it, Wonder’s screenplay (by director Stephen Chbosky along with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne) has stayed very faithful to the novel, which has its pros and cons. The film is broken into apparent chapters, each from a different character’s point of view. On the one hand, this is a fantastic approach, because it pays greater attention to the feelings of those around Auggie, most notably Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). Unfortunately these sections vary so much in terms of their importance and pacing and make for an odd narrative structure. Some obvious characters – such as Auggie’s parents – are left out. And most disappointingly, about two thirds of the way through the film this device is thrown out, even though it could have been taken further. While this chapter approach seems like an attempt to stay true to the book, it results in a film that lacks fluidity.
Jacob Tremblay is an absolute gem in the leading role of Auggie. After a stellar performance in 2015’s Room, he delivers again here, which is no mean feat given he’s limited in the facial expressions he is able to convey underneath all that make-up. Some of the other child actors who play Auggie’s peers aren’t quite as strong, but then maybe my standards are too high after IT and Stranger Things. Sixteen-year-old Izabela Vidovic is a highlight as Via, the older sister who craves more attention from her parents who seem to use it all up on Auggie given his higher needs. It’s always good to see the impact on siblings and it’s something that Wonder does very well.
Something that was particularly heartening to see was the portrayal of the school bully’s parents. Completely unwilling to see any fault in their own child or to admit any kind of responsibility for bad parenting, Wonder makes a clear comment on why nasty kids turn out the way they do. It’s enough to even make you feel a bit sorry for the jerk. In contrast, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson portray the sort of parents who should be cherished – not perfect, but doing a damn good job. Mandy Patinkin as the school principal and Hamilton alumnus Daveed Diggs as the coolest teacher ever are great but their characters are almost too wonderful to be believed.
The film includes some fun little quirks to show Auggie’s imagination and his coping mechanisms – Star Wars fans will get a kick out of one of them. Most importantly it boasts a lovely message about choosing kindness and looking past appearances. Overall it is a feel-good film with an obvious lesson and corny dialogue aplenty (just watch the trailer). Sometimes it’s cringeworthy, but ultimately it’s really pretty sweet. Take your kids for a lesson in empathy, and maybe some tissues as well.
This review was first published on 29th November 2017 at Film Blerg.