Based on a popular children’s book, Wonder is a film about a young boy with craniofacial abnormalities who is entering school for the first time. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky translates the original story into a film about learning to cope with the world’s reaction to someone being different and how that reaction influences everyone. While the main character’s condition is severe, there are no hospital scenes or sickbeds; instead, the focus is on the social and emotional aspects of his experience at school.
Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is just entering 5th grade at a private middle school. After years of homeschooling, his parents have decided he is ready to face the everyday world. But Auggie himself isn’t so sure, and the first day proves to be just what he expected. The other children stare and gasp and a few are downright cruel, but his parents and older sister convince him to persevere. Before long one of the other boys, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), tentatively befriends him and they two begin to form a bond. Auggie’s troubles with bullies persist, however, escalating as the school year goes on. At Halloween, an unexpected costume change leads to a terrible revelation that causes Auggie to doubt he will ever be accepted in the regular world.
Auggie’s story takes up most of the runtime, but about twenty minutes in it expands its focus to include Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) and his parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson). Via is several years older than Auggie and has had to grow up quickly and learn to care for herself while her parents were absorbed in the needs of her brother. Now in high school, she joins the theater club after a pleasant encounter with a hot drama geek and finds her own life is changing as well. Isabel is left with little to do now that she is no longer teaching her son and she must also figure out how to adapt to the new routine. These side stories are only given a small amount of development, but they bring the film up a level by having a wider perspective than is usually offered in this kind of movie.
The cast of Wonder was well chosen in their respective roles. Tremblay is remarkable as Auggie, as he gives a nuanced performance that is funny and sweet but also conveys the anger and frustration of someone who has been judged as different their whole life. Julia Roberts uses every bit of screen time she has to its fullest possibility and almost pops off the screen with her vivacious and emotive portrayal. As the nice but hormonal teenager, Izabella Vidovic’s Via is well-intentioned, but the story doesn’t give her enough range to show off any talent. Owen Wilson’s character is incredibly nice, but he is one dimensional at best, providing support and gentle good humor at all the right moments and fading into the background when he isn’t needed. The four actors work well together, and their genuine affection for each other shines through in every scene they share together.
As a film that discusses bullying and being different, it’s expected Wonder will have a few inspirational quotes and moments. In the beginning, it goes all out with them, even putting a toe over the line into schmaltz before the plot takes over. Once that kicks in, the film finds its voice and the gentle, compassionate tone it strikes helps compensate for its earlier missteps. The film chooses its scenes carefully, only briefly touching on discrimination and skirting around the topic of disability. It also leaves the more clinical aspects of Auggie’s daily life and experiences in the background after an initial acknowledgment. All of these seem purposeful choices as the film does its best to show the similarities between the characters and through that give an understanding that our differences should not divide us. Wonder has some very high goals in mind, and while I don’t think it reaches all of them, its efforts are admirable and make for an emotional but hopeful viewing experience.