Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder is a film, based on description, that might have you fretting it will attempt to bludgeon you into tears with sentimentality. A child with a facial deformity entering public school for the first time could be a recipe for mawkish overload. Yet I’ll be darned if Wonder doesn’t earn its tears (both sad and happy) at a rather astonishing percentage.
The child is Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), born with Treacher Collins syndrome. Going into the fifth grade, Auggie has been home schooled by mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) thus far and been somewhat sheltered from the inevitable bullying and strange looks that greet him. This all changes when he attends a Manhattan middle school. He finds the bullies, but he also finds many kind hearts in the children and adults who populate it.
In Auggie’s story, we do find similarities to 1985’s similarly effective Mask with Eric Stoltz as the outsider kid and Cher as the strong mom. What I didn’t expect here is the number of subplots involving other characters and how powerful they are.
Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has the opposite emotional issues as her cherished brother. While Auggie often wishes to just be invisible (his favorite holiday is Halloween because his mask lets him at last be just another kid), Via wishes to be seen. Her mom and dad (Owen Wilson) are consumed with her sibling and his struggles. Her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) isn’t paying attention to her. Via’s story line is often just as touching as her brother’s.
That’s a testament to a well constructed screenplay based on R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel. The picture takes time to explain the actions of those around Auggie, including the school children who befriend him and those that choose not to. A weaker script would have turned his classmates into caricatures, but this one knows better.
As he proved in 2015’s Room, Tremblay is a one heck of a child actor. He’s unrecognizable here and he gives another powerhouse performance. Roberts and Wilson provide solid support, as does Mandy Patinkin as the wise principal of the school. And as mentioned, Vidovic shines in the big sister role that a lesser movie wouldn’t have even paid attention to.
It’s a thin line between a film trying to guilt you into throat lumps over warranting them. Wonder has a message of kindness that we could all use from time to time. That messages comes across well and this viewer felt the screenplay more than justified the several occasions of mistiness it caused.
***1/2 (out of four)