Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Running Time: 113 mins
Synopsis: August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Tremblay) is about to start the 5th grade, as well as attend his first mainstream elementary school. Auggie’s facial deformities have meant he’s had to be home schooled up to this point. We witness the strength he inspires in his nervous parents (Roberts and Wilson), the teachers and the children around him, whom themselves are all dealing with their own internal struggles.
Sentimentality is a tricky thing to pull off without the need for fingers in throat weariness. Too often directors lean heavily on the soppy music, soft focused lens or the cheese of their lead performers to bang you over the head with how you should be feeling. Some, however, do find that balance. Steven Spielberg, possibly the greatest director of our times, manages to strike that balance using a mix of craft, earnestness, and capable committed lead actors, albeit even he can sometimes drum the note a little too hard. Wonder is very much out of this stable, preaching the notion of kindness and compassion with utter sincerity, in the process warming even the coldest of hearts.
Based on the New York Times bestseller by RJ Palacio, Wonder is primarily the tale of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman. An immensely bright, hopelessly imaginative boy who has spent the majority of his early years being home schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts, in a gracefully emotional performance). You see Auggie has suffered from a severe facial deformity since birth, only thanks to multiple surgeries has he been able to see and hear, whilst numerous plastic surgeries have attempted to give him a ‘normal’ face. Home schooling can only teach so much though, with his mother and father (Owen Wilson, playing his laidback genteel persona to the hilt) opting to send him to school to start fifth grade. Outside of this that is pretty much all the real story you get, the rest of the film detailing his struggles amongst his fellow students.
Faced with almost immediate bullying and the constant stares of those whom lack the ability to accept, August suffers greatly. Jacob Tremblay, who so captivated in last years Room, gives a winning performance as the wounded youngster. Managing to act from behind some weighty but effective prosthetics to convey a boy of real sharpness and intellect. The way he sees the world is charming and not quite as naive as you’d expect from such a young lad, in fact part of why this film works so well is its subtle insight into the darker side of human behaviour. Whilst August elicits such deep affection from the audience and those around him, the film is not afraid to depict him as selfish and stroppy. Too easy it would be for the filmmakers to make him a godly saint, whilst the others around him are just one dimensional bullies and yet everyone here is given added facets that surprise.
Wonder is structured as a series of vignettes that focus, not just on August, but those around him. You’d expect some of these to centre on the parents yet they are very much towards the background here, facilitating events and desperately trying to stay strong whilst the kids carry the bulk of the material. There is Auggie’s new found friend Jack Will (an adept performance from Noah Jupp), bully Julian who is revealed to be dealing with a family unit that inspires such behaviour, lonely newcomer Summer and his own big sister Via. She struggles to get noticed amidst the maelstrom of Auggie’s troubled childhood, with Izabela Vidovic convincing as a loyal older sibling but one who just yearns for a smidgen of attention. Broad some of these characters and emotions may be but the young cast bring confidence, wit and charm to their roles. One or two aspects don’t work, such as Via’s only friend who distances herself from Via and the family for pretty thin reasons, not to mention the films tendency to put in a few too many scenes of classmates realising just how brave August is. After awhile we surely get the point. An added segment surrounding the family pet is perhaps the film at its most manipulative, coming across abrupt and completely unnecessary.
There is a no doubt strong attempt to make you cry with this film, and whether that happens or not is mainly down to whether you get onboard with its noble message or not. It certainly helps that director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is capable of giving some vital inventive flourishes to events. Notably in the imaginative flights of fancy August has to overcome his fears, a love of space translating into him bouncing around the school as an astronaut and a deep affection for Star Wars resulting in a few witty cameos that no doubt set the bean counters back a lot of licencing fees. Chbosky also utilises humour in an effective way to cut through some of the more saccharine encounters, and whilst not as perceptive as his previous film Wonder still has a vitally important message. No matter our differences, be it our looks or our beliefs, no matter how our environments may tell us to behave in a certain way, we all have the capacity to offer such kindness, such empathy, such compassion. In a world of increasing darkness, fear and judgemental naivety, Wonder teaches that goodness will always prevail. Sentimental it may be but come the Mandy Patinkin delivered final speech (I’m just going to say it now Patinkin is the ultimate actor in showcasing ferocious paternal generosity) there shouldn’t be a dry eye left in the house.
If there comes a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind!
Verdict: A charming weepie that earns its tears with tasteful empathy, lashings of whip smart humour and confident touching performances.