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‘Wonder’: Film Review

A boy with a craniofacial disorder ventures beyond the cocoon of homeschooling in a family drama starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay.

Based on a children’s novel that sparked a “Choose Kind” movement — “kind” as in “kindness,” or what the world needs now — Wonder brings an upbeat openheartedness to tough questions. Its lessons in compassion and self-acceptance are treacle-free, and however movie-shiny the story’s world of economic comfort and prep school, those lessons pack a universal punch.

If they’re also sometimes driven home with a borderline-corny obviousness, that’s because this screen version of R. J. Palacio’s popular book is a truly kid-centric drama, speaking directly to kids, not around them, while exploring their points of view. Writer-director Stephen Chbosky, who previously adapted his coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the screen, has a feel for the turning points that shape the tween and teen years — turning points that are, in this case, heightened by exceptional circumstances.

Tracing a milestone year in the life of a boy who was born with craniofacial differences, Wonder has an obvious antecedent in Peter Bogdanovich’s deft 1985 feature Mask, but this is a decidedly less gritty, solidly middle-school tale. With his co-screenwriters, Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne, Chbosky aims above all to inspire, and he has harnessed the considerable star power of his three leads to do just that, with humor and heart. As a serious live-action film for kids, it’s a rare commodity, destined to connect with family audiences over the year-end holidays.

It might be impossible to separate the adorable visage of Jacob Tremblay from his breakout turn in Room, but here, with that now-familiar face erased from the equation, he more than meets a different actorly challenge. Beneath prosthetics and a dash of CGI, he plays Auggie Pullman, who at 10 has already been through 27 surgical procedures to correct his birth-defect facial abnormalities. The cheerful, matter-of-fact display of Auggie’s hospital bracelets in his bedroom sets the tone for the movie: Acknowledged with gentle irreverence, medical ordeals are the character-shaping backdrop to a story that looks forward, focused on resilience and transition.

Grudgingly and at the urging of his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), who has put her creative pursuits on hold while homeschooling him, Auggie is starting fifth grade at a local prep school. Though he’d never express it to his son, Auggie’s dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), shares his trepidation, afraid that he and Isabel are sending a “lamb to the slaughter.”

To be sure, the horrors of schoolkid cliques and bullies, led by a trust-fund brat named Julian (Bryce Gheisar), await Auggie as they would any outsider, let alone someone whose looks are so unusual. But his principal (Mandy Patinkin) is an unmitigated mensch, his homeroom teacher (played by Daveed Diggs, star of Broadway’s Hamilton, in his first film role) spouts thoughtful precepts on how to be a good person and his science teacher (Ali Liebert) encourages Auggie’s love of the subject.

The narrative is divided into chapters, each dedicated to the perspective of one of the young characters, and sometimes doubles back on events, lending new facets and dimension. First up is Auggie, who enters the fifth-grade fray with the slouch of someone who’d rather not face other people’s discomfort. His older sister, Via (sensitively played by Izabela Vidovic), gets a chapter, as do her former best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and Auggie’s new school buddy Jack (Noah Jupe), a genial scholarship student with an unsteady sense of loyalty. With commendable concision and insight, the film sympathetically reveals the challenges they each face on the home front. Even the villainous Julian gets a redemptive aha moment.

There’s a particular poignancy to the story of Via, the sibling unavoidably sidelined by the constant state of emergency in Auggie’s first years. Sonia Braga’s flashback cameo as Via’s grandmother underscores not just a bond that sustained the girl but the basic need to be seen — a need that’s awfully complicated for Auggie. While her brother reluctantly doffs his astronaut’s helmet and learns to navigate a public sphere amid taunts and stares, Via embarks on her momentous first year of high school. Heartbroken over the rift with Miranda, she discovers first love with a self-declared theater nerd (Nadji Jeter) and her own flair for theater, claiming the spotlight for the first time in years.

Via and Auggie’s parents are supporting characters in the best sense, with Roberts and Wilson bringing effortless warmth, signature touches and well-etched detail to understated roles. Roberts conveys Isabel’s love, strength and twinges of maternal anxiety, as well as the mild case of empty nest syndrome that strikes after she nudges her boy out into the world. Wilson’s comic relief is perfectly pitched, a smooth deflection of paternal worry. Beyond his childlike streak, Nate is an unconventional type whose executive-suite suits are more a badge of familial devotion than a reflection of his deepest self.

Within the film’s bright, sanitized rendition of New York (a Times Square New Year’s Eve never looked so uncrowded), Chbosky interweaves Auggie’s fanboy fantasies of NASA and Star Wars, sequences whose cosmic whimsy serves to deepen the down-to-earth vibe. Though the drama is firmly grounded, its grasp of nuance comes and goes. Yet even at its clumsiest, a climactic lesson in anti-bullying and forgiveness, the adventure-story earnestness feels apt for grade-school-age moviegoers.

Through it all, Tremblay gives full-blooded life to Auggie’s emotional roller coaster of breakthroughs and betrayals, his posture and energy shifting expressively; he’s transformed, not hidden, by the prosthetic makeup (designed by Arjen Tuiten, whose credits include Pan’s Labyrinth and Maleficent).

Whether Auggie is declaring his understandable enthusiasm for Halloween, making sharp observations about his schoolmates or demanding answers to some of life’s knottiest questions, the sweetness of the young actor’s voice heightens the sense of optimism and vulnerability. Wonder is a story of connection, not suffering. Dramatizing one boy’s effect on the people around him, it invites the viewer into that fold.

Production companies: Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media, Mandeville Films
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Sonia Braga, Danielle Rose Russell, Nadji Jeter, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Millie Davis, Elle McKinnon, Ali Liebert, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenwriters: Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad, Jack Thorne; based on the novel by R. J. Palacio
Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Robert Kessel, Michael Beugg, R.J. Palacio, Alexander Young
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Special makeup designer and creator: Arjen Tuiten
Casting directors: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith

Rated PG, 113 minutes

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