You can’t try and blend in, when you were born to stand out.
If you have children — or spend a lot of time around kids — there’s a big chance you’re probably already familiar with Wonder, the bestselling novel by writer R.J. Palacio, which actually got its title from a ’95 Natalie Merchant song that features in the film. Those unfamiliar with the 2012 paperback, Wonder tells the touching story of a 10-year-old boy born with a craniofacial abnormality named August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who, after being homeschooled by his overprotective mother, enters the public education system for the very first time. Although its being marketed as a mawkish heart-tugger, Wonder is a much broader experience, the narrative emphasizing to ‘choose kind,’ author Palacio stressing the importance of compassion and empathy through an array of (well-established) characters that are closely connected to Auggie.
Even though lil’ Auggie has a face that takes a bit of getting used to, he’s still just an ordinary kid, one who loves science, Star Wars and dreams of, one day, becoming an astronaut — the poor tyke even walks around his house wearing a NASA spaceman helmet to conceal his disfigurement, flipping up the visor at the dinner table to eat his meals. Now that he’s 10, Auggie’s mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts), and dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), have decided that it’s time to send their son to middle school, seeing as they know that they can’t shield him from the world forever.
Naturally, Auggie dreads the idea of starting fifth grade, afraid that the other kids will stare at him or call him names. Sadly, by the time he finishes his first day at Beecher Prep in Manhattan, he’s already been subjected to harassment and discrimination, being nicknamed ‘the plague’ and ‘Barf Hideous,’ the latter after popular Star Wars character Darth Sidious, or teased about his Jedi-like rattail/ Padawan braid (which he later chops off); these early scenes illustrating the damaging nature of bullying. From here, Wonder follows Auggie’s remarkable journey as he’s forced to transition from the sheltered incubator of his warm brownstone home and move into some very complicated terrain (which he’s never before experienced), the likable nipper learning how to handle friends and foes with both courage and kindness.
Open-hearted and earnest, Wonder’s biggest strength lays in its changing perspectives, with director and former novelist Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), using chapters to explore various people in August’s life, people who audiences will initially pass judgment on, before seeing the world through their eyes. Auggie’s first real friend, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), is perhaps the most relatable character, a regular boy who wants to be a decent person, even if he usually takes the easy road — a trait that most of us can recognize within ourselves. For instance, while celebrating Auggie’s favorite time of the year, Halloween, Jack gives in to peer pressure (afraid of being labeled as uncool) when he gets drawn into a toxic discussion with arrogant bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and his pals about his ‘friend’s’ unpleasant face, Auggie overhearing Jack say that he’d kill himself if he looked like August, this causing the frail ‘ugly duckling’ to lose trust in others. It’s refreshing to (later) see such a potent moment between the boys take place while they’re playing a game of Minecraft.
Auggie’s teenage sister, Olivia or Via (Izabela Vidovic), is the most complicated character in the movie. The only ‘healthy’ kid in the Pullman clan, Via refers to August as the sun or the center of her family’s universe (sucking their attention like a vacuum). This, however, doesn’t stop her from being a supportive, encouraging big sister, even though she’s struggling with her own problems and coming-of-age dilemmas. While some of Via’s concerns revolve around Auggie and his role in her life, others relate to her friendships at school, chiefly that of her former closer-than-close best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who shuns her after returning from a summer camp with a too-cool-for-school attitude and hot pink highlights in her hair. Although viewers will, at first, see Miranda as kind of a jerk, we’re later given insight into her own personal struggles, her parents’ divorce making her jealous of Via’s loving family, Wonder highlighting that people can sometimes be hurtful towards others for reasons that aren’t immediately visible.
Similarly, Wonder shows viewers that everyone can feel inadequate and insecure and that everybody wants to be seen (not stared at) — sadly, I know what the ‘staring’ is like, I’m an identical twin. While the film is targeted towards children or young adults, parents and grown-ups can learn a thing or two from this story as well, mainly the (often forgotten) fact that bullying and ableism are taught, Wonder perhaps getting adults to take a step back and reflect on their own behavior — there’s a great scene that shows us that even the most simple statement, such as saying ‘this seat is taken,’ can be harmful in a particular context, and another that attributes Julian’s mean-spiritedness to his nasty parents, his vile mother even suggesting that her son needed counseling after having nightmares from looking at Auggie’s face.
Kudos to wonderkid Jacob Tremblay, Room (2015), who anchors the film with realness as Auggie, the talented 11-year-old delivering an outstanding performance behind layers and layers of transformative make-up, our young star wholeheartedly selling the role of the person behind the mask — truth be told, I never pitied August because of his deformity, it was the way he was treated that got me choked up, this a testament to Tremblay’s superb work. Izabela Vidovic, Homefront (2013), is excellent as Auggie’s big sis Via, who’s facing her own tumultuous year of ups and downs — joining the drama club, making new friends, falling for thespian Justin (Nadji Jeter), and trying out for the school production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Even young support players Elle McKinnon, A Christmas to Remember (2016), and Millie Davis, The Best Man Holiday (2013), are solid as the showy blonde Charlotte and the smart, shy Summer, a couple of Auggie’s classmates.
In terms of the adults, Julia Roberts, Notting Hill (1999), and Owen Wilson, Marley & Me (2008), make a surprisingly good team as Auggie’s parents Isabel and Nate, the seasoned stars showing viewers what it’s like to raise a child who’s different, the couple navigating their own anxieties about how less accepting folk might see/ treat their son. Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride (1987), is affable as the school’s principled principal, Mr. Tushman (whose name is the butt of many a joke), Patinkin bringing his usual humanity and wisdom to the role. Last but not least, Daveed Diggs, Ferdinand (2017), is great as Auggie’s precept-writing English/ homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, whose various chalkboard ‘guidelines’ urge students to think critically about the world and their place in it.
Slickly shot by cinematographer Don Burgess, Forrest Gump (1994), and lovingly crafted by director Stephen Chbosky — who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Conrad, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), and Jack Thorne, How I Live Now (2013) — Wonder might be excessively sentimental and a bit too saccharine for some, but its positive, mature messages make it essential viewing for anyone aged between six to sixteen. Heck, I can assure you that even the most fidgety of patrons will come out with a clear understanding of what the movie’s trying to say. In short, Wonder is simply wonderful.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Wonder is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia