FILM REVIEW – WONDER. With Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin.Written by Stephen Chbosky and Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. 113 minutes.
This has not been a great year at the movies. Too many films were made simply because the studio owned the rights and wanted to do a reboot/remake/sequel/prequel. Director Stephen Chbosky is different. Having adapted his own book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” into a powerful and engaging film, he returns behind the camera for WONDER, a movie that proves to be about much more than you think going in.
Based on the book by R. J. Palacio, it tells the story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who is born with a deformed face. Even after multiple surgeries, he still doesn’t look “normal,” but inside there’s a perfectly normal ten-year-old who has been homeschooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) but is now going to enter fifth grade at a well-heeled private school. If the movie was simply about Augie’s struggle for acceptance, that might have been enough, but like the novel it’s based on, we get the perspectives of many characters including his sister Via (Izabetla Vidovic) and his first real friend Jack (Noah Jupe).
What we learn is that each of the kids has their own burden, whether it’s being at the school on financial aid, having divorced parents who lost interest in their child’s life, or – in the alternative – bully their son with their own prejudices and behaviors. Everyone can see how Auggie is different, while the differences of others are largely invisible.
The choice of Chbosky as director (he also co-wrote the screenplay) was inspired. He clearly relates to these young characters and remembers what it’s like to be shunned in the lunchroom or to lose someone you thought was a friend. Likewise, he remembers the joys of making a new friend, and – most especially – discovering that you’re not alone in the world. The adults, including a subdued Owen Wilson as Augie’s dad, are supportive, but by the tween years, one is looking for acceptance by one’s peers. Augie’s journey will have you tearing up, laughing, and cheering. This is an example of the rare but much-desired “family film” which addresses all ages. It’s not surprising to see that Walden Media is one of the companies involved in this project as they have made quality family films like the first “Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Bridge to Terabithia,” and “The B.F.G.” their hallmark.
The adult cast provides some star power, including a cameo by Sonia Braga as the grandmother, but Chbosky tamps down Wilson and Patinkin and even Roberts, so that it is the young performers who are in the foreground. Young Tremblay (with the help of prosthetic makeup) is utterly natural as Augie, struggling to play the hand life has dealt him. The others succeed in showing us the complexities of tweens and teens today, sometimes doing the right thing and sometimes not.
“Wonder” may not be a blockbuster or Oscar bait, but if you’re looking for a movie this season that, for a little while at any rate, will make you feel better about the world, this is the one you need to see.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.