Don’t be fooled by the publicity–Wonder is not that kind of movie. What are we talking about? You know–the kind of feel good flick, the one where a fragile outsider child overcomes adversity while we all learn life lessons about tolerance and kindness in the most manipulative, mawkish way possible? Well, Wonder is not that. Sure, it’s a bit sloppy and episodic, but by avoiding the cliches that come with this specific subgenre, it manages to deliver a message that’s both well-intentioned and entertaining.
Little August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) was born with a genetic abnormality which left his face deformed. He is been in and out of hospitals and surgeries for most of his years on the planet. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) looks out for him while Mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) is pushing for him to finally attend public school (she’s been doing the educating at home so far). Only big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) is conflicted. She loves her little brother, but hates all the attention he gets (and she doesn’t).
When the big day finally arrives to begin classes at Beecher Prep, Auggie is understandably terrified. A kind administrator (Mandy Patinkin) tries to help, and he assigns various classmates to the newbie to get him assimilated. Naturally, he’s not warmly welcomed by the students, many of whom see Auggie as a freak. He is eventually befriended by a shy girl named Summer (Millie Davis) and ends up BFFs with a boy named Jack (Noah Dupe). We follow Auggie for a year, and we also get a peek at the lives of others we’ve met and how this unusual child’s presence has impacted them.
Wonder works because it is honest. It does have a trick up its sleeve (the aforementioned change in perspective) but it otherwise avoids the manipulations that make for a cloying, saccharine struggle. Yes, the finale is so pat that script writing classes will be using it as an example of what not to do, but for the most part, Wonder is authentic and geniune. It doesn’t sugarcoat Auggie or how others treat him, and the oh so au currant concepts of body shaming and bullying are treated with practicality, not preaching. In fact, the most important theme here is the inherent nature of human kindness.
Indeed, Wonder does tell us that the power of love and understanding can overcome even the most biased and mean-spirited mindset. Auggie is a walking challenge–he’s sweet and cute and smart and personable–with only his face differing him from anyone else. You have to give director Stephen Chbosky credit for setting out the basics and then building off them with creativity and dimensional characters. He never pushes–beyond the ending–and gives every set-up the attention it deserves.
The acting is also on point. We expect good turns from Roberts and Wilson, but in Jacob Tremblay, we are seeing the emergence of a quality child star on the level of Henry Thomas (E.T.) or Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). Anyone who can convey real emotion while decked out in an astronaut’s helmet is definitely a performer to watch. Even the smaller roles are perfect, with the kids sounding like kids while the adults avoid the pontifications the premise threatens. This is the first feel good film in a long time that simply let’s you do that–feel good. No sugarcoating. No schmaltz. Just sincerity.
So ignore the press and publicity and seek out Wonder. It’s not a flawless film, but when you consider what it could have been and how this material might have been handled, the results are truly winning.