A winsome, if unabashedly sentimental, family drama
It seems unnecessary to mention that the story of a 10-year-old boy with “facial differences" entering a regular school for the first time will have you reaching for a tissue (or two). August “Auggie" Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is born with Treacher Collins Syndrome; he’s undergone 27 surgeries and so far been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). But when he enters fifth grade, it’s time for him to leave aside his astronaut helmet—a kind of disguise and alter ego—and come face to face with reality.
In director Stephen Chbosky’s film, based on R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel, the adults, mostly, understand and are compassionate. But the cruelty of children, not yet schooled in the merits of discretion, comes through loud and clear. Auggie is aware that people stare at him but it doesn’t get any easier for him to accept their revulsion, fear and unkindness. Aware of the discomfort of those around him, he’s developed his own tools for coping with these situations. One of these is to look at people’s shoes. Another is: “If you don’t like where you are, picture where you want to be."
Auggie’s spirit, humour and confidence come from his parents, Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel, and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). Nate and Isabel set major parenting goals while Via’s character is wonderfully portrayed. She represents all the complexities of a child who has had to be consistently understanding and supportive, while her sibling has held the attention of their parents. She’s also the one who delivers one of the strongest messages of this movie: You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out. This is second only to school principal, Mr. Tushman, who says, “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see."
The film opens on the first day of the new school year. As Auggie is dropped off by his family, the boy, obsessed with outer space and Star Wars, has to remove the helmet and show the world his face. There’s a lovely moment as each of them gives Auggie a pep talk before he takes that giant step into a new, daunting environment.
His classmates range from an arrogant bully to those who care to get to know Auggie. These talented young actors—Millie Davis (as Summer), Noah Jupe (as Jack Will) and Bryce Gheisar (as Julian)—are the pulse of Wonder, just as much as Wilson, Roberts, Tremblay and Vidovic are its soul.
Following the structure of the book, the screenplay provides differing points of view—the sister, her best friend, Auggie’s friend—like chapters within the narrative. It’s a tool that does not add much to the flow but is an easy way to present perspectives.
Wonder is a sentimental family film. While it’s not devoid of clichés, these are offset by solid performances and a winsome, uplifting story told with tenderness.