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Review: Wonder

February 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The first time we see August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) in Wonder, he is jumping on the bed, with his head floating up and down in slow motion in front of the stars painted on his wall, and his face obscured by a plastic astronaut helmet.  Auggie is a lot like other kids his age in that he loves learning about space and science, spends his free time playing Minecraft, and is obsessed with Star Wars.

The only thing separating him from the other kids is that he was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that has caused him to undergo countless surgeries, and has left him with extreme craniofacial deformities.  But Auggie wants nothing more than to be able to fit in, and we soon find out that he prefers to cover his head with an astronaut helmet so that people won’t be able stare at his face, as they are apt to do.

Based on R.J. Palacio’s bestselling children’s novel of the same name, Wonder is an enjoyable feel good film that carries with it a positive message about acceptance and inclusion.   Auggie lives in an upper middle class neighbourhood in Manhattan with his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), father Nate (Owen Wilson) and his teenaged sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  The story unfolds over an academic year, and begins with Auggie about to start school for the first time, after years of being homeschooled by his mother, who sacrificed her own career in order to take care of him.

Auggie not only finds himself dealing with the usual middle school struggles of trying to make friends and being the new kid in class, but also has to face the added hurdles of getting mercilessly bullied and being inundated with a barrage of cruel comments about his appearance.  The film also branches off to show us what’s happening in the lives of those around him, even sometimes showing the same events from a different viewpoint, and this gives added perspective to the story as a whole.

We see how Via struggles for parental attention alongside her high needs sibling, while also coping with her own drama involving a falling out with her former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and falling for a guy named Justin (Nadji Jeter) who encourages her to join the school theatre club.  This Rashomon-like structure also allows for greater insight into Auggie’s classmate Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who starts off as his friend, before Auggie overhears a mean conversation while he is hidden behind a mask on Halloween that leaves him feeling betrayed.

I read the book a few years ago when it first came out, and for the most part I think the film does justice to the source material.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, delivering his first film since making waves with an exceptional adaptation of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012, Wonder handles its sensitive subject matter very well.  Yes, the story is fictitious, but Treacher Collins is a real disorder, so obviously great pains had to be taken to depict it respectfully.  Auggie’s facial differences are tastefully achieved through Oscar-nominated makeup and prosthetics, and his features are pronounced enough to be jarring at first, but also subtle enough so that we get used to the them as the film goes on.

The film is carried by a likeable performance from Jacob Tremblay, whose bright screen presence shines through from under the layers of makeup and prosthetics, and the young actor is backed up by nice work from the supporting cast.  Julia Roberts wonderfully portrays the maternal love of her character, able to show how much she cares for her son with merely a look or a tight embrace.  Owen Wilson provides some warm comic relief in another one of his charming dad roles, and Izabela Vidovic brings some nice shades to her role as the older sister.

Last but certainly not least, Mandy Patinkin helps round out the adult cast with an excellent supporting role as the school principal Mr. Tushman, with one of the film’s best scenes being when he confronts the school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a snotty rich kid who sucks up to adults while acting cruelly around the other kids.  The way that Patinkin’s brow furrows, as profound disappointment and even sympathy subtly flash across his face, really helps to elevate this scene.

A few of the film’s more whimsical stylistic touches, like when Auggie imagines being accompanied to school by Chewbacca, don’t quite work, and the film does feel a bit saccharine at times.  But there’s also an earnestness to Wonder that actually makes it refreshing to watch.  This is a film that’s completely free of cynicism, and it’s also very much made for an all ages audience, meaning that pretty much everyone who sees it can get something out of it.  It’s a nice movie, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The film works because its main characters are kind and decent people, and not only do we genuinely want the best for them, but we also don’t mind spending time with them for a few hours.  This is a sweet and charming film that generates compassion and empathy, gently reminding us to treat others with kindness and respect.  The book succeeded by asking its readers to “choose kind,” and Wonder succeeds as a movie by asking the audience to do the same thing.

Wonder is being released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.

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