Wonder (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I saw “Wonder,” a film featuring a boy with a facial deformity, it was in a theater packed with parents and children. Seated in the row behind me were a mother and her children, who were probably around 7 or 8 years of age. The film had barely started when I overheard the children whisper loudly and repeatedly to their mother, “I don’t want to see what he looks like!” They were referring to the boy with the facial deformity whose face hadn’t been revealed yet. (I’m guessing they didn’t see any promos for the film…?)

Those kids are the exact group of children that need to see “Wonder.”

Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio, does feature a troubled but brave 10-year-old boy with a genetic facial deformity as he attempts to tough it out in public school after being homeschooled for so many years. And some readers have probably stopped right there, because they think they know what kind of film this is—a manipulative, cloying melodrama that uses a physical handicap for exploitation and forced sentiment. But they’d be wrong, because not only is “Wonder” full of familiar elements now done fresh and original, but it also does something else very important that elevates it from the afterschool special that it could’ve been: it shows all that the boy affects around him. That makes the overall lesson we’re supposed to take from the film (that nobody is “ordinary”) all the more stronger. Everyone has their own issues, no matter what their physical differences.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has undergone 17 operations in his 10 years of life, and his face still alarms everyone around him. His mother (Julia Roberts) decides it’s finally time for him to attend public school, while his father (Owen Wilson) isn’t so sure. They both love their son and want what’s best for him—he’s afraid the other kids will mock or be feared by him; she feels he has to adjust to the outside world more regularly; they’re both understandable in their reasoning. Nonetheless, Auggie begins the fifth grade and is given the looks and the mocking by his fellow classmates, until he slowly but surely starts to adjust and make friends.

Typical, yes. But “Wonder” switches focus from time to time, giving us insight into other characters. We see what goes through the mind of Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), as she wishes just once that her parents would ask about her day. She loves her brother but silently resents the spotlight that’s always been given to him. And their parents are loving and trying their hardest to be there for both of them; they just don’t always notice when their daughter needs them.

And then we wonder (forgive the pun) about Via’s former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who neglects her after a summer away. We see why there’s this change in her, and suddenly we’re feeling for her.

And then there’s Auggie’s friend at school, Jack Will (Noah Jupe). When something unexpected comes up, we see his point of view and feel for him too.

All of these detours help make “Wonder” even stronger when we realize the full story surrounding Auggie, who at one point has to be reminded that not everything is about him and everyone else is going through hard stuff as well. It’s more than welcome to see the perspectives of those surrounding Auggie as well as Auggie. It’s a very effective way of presenting to the audience that no one person is just “ordinary.”

Appealing characters is only aided by solid acting, and the cast as a whole is terrific. Little Jacob Tremblay continues his string of winning performances, showing that his breakthrough role in 2015’s “Room” was no fluke. And once you see past the odd disfigurement (done with convincing makeup work), you see the genuine sweetness within this character. Julia Roberts delivers her best work in years, playing a genuinely sweet (and thankfully knowing, unlike most naïve parental characters in movies of this sort) mother who tries to be there for both her children. Owen Wilson plays an endearing dad. Other adult actors such as Daveed Diggs as a teacher and Mandy Patinkin as the principal are solid. And all the other young actors, particularly Izabela Vidovic, are very impressive.

My only problems with the film come near the final half. The big final moment is handled well, with of course a big speech and a standing ovation (it earns it), but a couple moments leading up to it feel forced. One involves a meeting between the principal and a bully’s parents (painful), and the other involves a fight followed by a silent moment on a beach (overly whimsical). Also, there are a few lines of dialogue that spell out all the lessons we’re supposed to take from the film, way before the final speech already does it well enough and we get the point by then. “Don’t blend in when you’re made to stand out.” “Between what’s right and what’s kind, do what’s kind.” And a couple more I noticed.

But overall, “Wonder” works “wonders.” (Forgive that pun also—or use it as an article headline.) By the time it ends, you feel that Auggie is going through a positive change in his life and will continue with it through junior high, high school, college, and ultimately adulthood. And you also feel that his friends and his family are going through the same change. Maybe the film will be powerful enough to teach it to the aforementioned children in the audience who saw it along with me.

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