Film Review: Wonder

It’s a wonder, all right—a wonder that so many top Hollywood talents would choose to take part in this simple, uplifting children’s story about a ten-year-old boy whose genetic facial deformities make him an object of curiosity and occasional ridicule.
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Adult moviegoers who are drawn to see a movie starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs and Sonia Braga will probably be surprised to see these usually tough-minded stars in an inspiring family drama based on a children’s book—a movie carrying a simple yet hopeful message about the importance of kindness. Yet, here they all are, in this entertaining and only slightly preachy movie called Wonder, about which it’s almost impossible to say a negative word. Almost.

Based on the best-selling (and evidently much loved) children’s book by R. J. Palacio, Wonder tells the story of ten-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, underneath heavy prosthetics), who was born with exceptional intelligence but a rare genetic kink that rearranged his facial features—and not in a good way. After undergoing dozens of cosmetic surgeries while still a small child, Auggie’s appearance eventually comes close to normal, but he remains disfigured enough to elicit stares and uncomfortable silences from those encountering him for the first time. Auggie’s loving family has naturally done everything it can to protect him from embarrassment and/or worse; his adoring mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), home-schools Auggie, and his father Nate (Owen Wilson) makes sure he knows about sports and how to have fun like a normal kid. And his teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) sincerely tries to give Auggie the love and support he needs, while quite graciously ceding the family spotlight to him.

Auggie’s protective bubble is about to burst, however, because his parents decide it’s time for him to face the world—by entering the fifth grade at a prestigious prep school. Although he warily agrees to the plan, on his first day in a real school Auggie nevertheless hides his face under the kid-size astronaut’s helmet he habitually wears in public. When forced to shed the protective headgear, Auggie’s misshapen mug is there for all to see—and some of his fellow students react as expected. However, one of them, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), appears to identify with Auggie’s “outsider” status and makes moves indicating he could be a friend.

Predictably, Auggie’s personality—and his smarts—induces some sort of transformation (for the better, of course) in everyone around him. And he grows as well, having learned the underlying moral of this story: Everyone is different, everyone has setbacks and everyone needs understanding, encouragement and, most of all, kindness. The adults in Auggie’s life already seem to know this well. In addition to his amazing parents, they include the school’s headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), his homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), and his grandmother (Sonia Braga in a flashback cameo). Grandma, by the way, is the only one who sees clearly the anguish Auggie has inadvertently caused his sister Via—because his needs have always overshadowed hers.

This is not the first time a movie has tackled this subject—the need to see beyond a person’s superficial appearance, ugly or not, to reveal the real and hopefully beautiful person underneath. However, Wonder may be the first Hollywood movie to deliver the message directly to kids, especially the bullying kids who’ve lately been making news. The chief bully here is Auggie’s classmate, the smirking Julian (Bryce Gheisar), who, as it happens, also has a backstory explaining how he got to be who he is.  As does good-guy Jack Will (who’s not always so good) and two sympathetic little girls, Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and the shy Summer (Millie Davis), along with Via and her new boyfriend, Justin (Nadji Jeter), and her on-and-off best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Although some of the moralizing gets a little heavy-handed at times, maybe that’s the only way to actually reach the bullies. You know?

However, whether or not you’re a bully in need of reformation, or a physically or emotionally deformed kid in need of acceptance—or if, indeed, you’re a sophisticated adult moviegoer—you may be astonished by your positive emotional reaction to Wonder. For the good intentions of this film may prompt you to cry (or at least want to), and by the time you’ve absorbed the lessons it teaches, you may feel a little better about yourself, and about being a human being. And, most wondrous of all, Wonder does all of this with an admirably light touch and a minimum of filmmaking fuss.

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