Based on the novel of the same name by Raquel Jaramillo (who used the pseudonym R.J. Palacio), Wonder is being positioned as a heartwarming family film for the holiday season, covering a variety of important themes such as acceptance and overcoming adversity. The source material was inspired by a real event Jaramillo experienced as a mother, grounding the book in reality and forcing the audience to face some impactful questions along the way. While the film adaptation definitely falls into some typical genre conventions as its story progresses, it is mostly successful in accomplishing its goals. Wonder is a touching tale of love and friendship, buoyed by strong performances from Jacob Tremblay and the rest of the cast.
August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay) was born with Treacher Collins syndrome and has endured several surgeries to help him live some semblance of a normal life. Though he has the same interests as ordinary kids his age, Auggie is well aware of his physical appearance and enjoys hiding behind a toy astronaut helmet – even while in public. Homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts) for years, Auggie makes the leap to “real” school when he starts fifth grade, with Isabel and her husband Nate (Owen Wilson) there to support their son. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister, Olivia (Izabella Vidovic), is going through changes of her own in the scary confines of high school.
The two siblings face their own sets of challenges in their new settings, but make new friends in the form of Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Justin (Nadji Jeter) to help them get through. Together, the Pullman family works to find a way to persevere and show others that beauty is more than what’s on the outside – it’s what in the heart that matters most.
Director Stephen Chbosky makes the smart decision to split the film into various “chapters” that revolve around a different character. Though Auggie is very much the lead protagonist, this approach ensures supporting players like Olivia, Jack Will, and Olivia’s old friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) are afforded more characterization than otherwise. Not every kid is given the same amount of depth, but this is still a nice touch that allows viewers to experience the story through multiple points of view and come away with a comprehensive overview of the family and those closest to them. Characters such as Jack Will and Olivia could have been surface-level archetypes, but they prove to be as important to Wonder as Auggie in the long run. Chbosky handles these transitions with skill, never lingering on one for too long.
The script, a collaboration between Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne, unfortunately has its ups and downs. On the positive side of the spectrum, the narrative contains a powerful and earnest message that will speak to many people. While the story most definitely follows a very predictable trajectory, it’s nonetheless inspiring and uplifting in its execution. That being said, sticking so close to a specific formula hamstrings Wonder at some points, as certain emotional beats seem to be there simply for manipulating feelings than servicing the narrative. As a result, there are times where the story loses its flow and natural momentum in order to hit generic plot points that aren’t all that necessary. The screenplay’s shortcomings aren’t enough to derail Wonder, but they do hold the movie back from reaching greatness.
A somewhat conventional story is elevated by impressive work from the cast, most notably Tremblay. The Room star proves once again he is one of this generation’s finest child actors, aptly blending drama and comedy for a well-rounded turn that makes his Auggie instantly likable and sympathetic. Savvy viewers will see his arc coming a mile away, but it’s still satisfying to watch because Tremblay is great in the role. Roberts and Wilson make for a strong support system for Auggie; the latter relies on his laid-back, easygoing charm to make Nate a “cool” dad with a sense of humor while the former makes for a convincing concerned and compassionate mother who loves nothing more than her son. Admittedly, Roberts’ part is a bit of an archetype, but that’s more the way it was written than how Roberts plays it.
In terms of the supporting cast, Vidovic gets the most to do as Olivia, going through her own journey that would have been substantial enough to carry a separate movie. Due to the film’s “Via” (as she’s called) section, Vidovic gets an opportunity to display a range of traits (isolated teen to caring sister) and isn’t just background dressing to round out a nuclear family. Auggie’s classmates, played by the likes of Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, and Millie Davis, are equally good, playing their roles with skill. Gheisar in particular will be someone audiences truly loathe as bully Julian, and credit has to be given to the young actor for handling what was surely a difficult part. Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin round out the cast as faculty and staff members at Auggie’s school, delivering good-natured performances.
Ultimately, Wonder makes the most of its assets and ends up being a solid family film that might be better than what some initially expected. Granted, cinephiles may not have to rush out to see it in the theaters in order to keep up with 2017’s awards contenders, but those looking for a nice time at the movies over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will probably find something to enjoy here. If nothing else, Wonder will be a compelling counter-programming option that offers a change-of-pace from some of the larger Hollywood releases.
Wonder is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 113 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements, including bullying, and some mild language.
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