Synopsis – Based on the New York Times bestseller, WONDER tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman, a boy with facial differences who enters fifth grade, attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time.
My Take – I think we all have at times felt different from everyone around us and wished we were more like them. While the thought process behind that notion may force me to rant around for long pages, here the focus is on a ten year old kid who will show you how lonely he feels in the real world, despite having his own set of dreams & extraordinary talents like all of us, but due to his unusual physical features, his ends up being barred from ordinary exchanges. I guess to an extent this film appeals to all the underdogs in us. Based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio, this Stephen Chbosky directed film has been positioned for release this weekend as a classic example of counterprogramming, just in order to take advantage of the film going audience that doesn’t care about superheroes saving the world and are just looking for heartwarming family film to watch in the upcoming the holiday season. Covering a variety of important themes such as acceptance and overcoming adversity, the film is a pleasant surprise and crowd-pleasing treat that forces the audience to face some impactful questions along the way. While the film adaptation does occasionally suffer from kid-film pitfalls, straining to be cute or mining humor from ridiculously precocious little ones, it does wholly succeed in telling not one complicated story, but many, and giving the experience of being a confused or lonely or scared youngster the space it deserves. Without a doubt, this film adaption of the New York Times bestseller, is a classic throwback to the days of sweet message films that didn’t require much explanation before recommending one of the best films of this year. The story follows August Pullman aka Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a 10 year old born with a chromosome condition that causes facial deformities, and after 27 surgeries he still looks noticeably different from other kids his age. After being home-schooled for half his life by his mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts), he is being sent to a public school for the first time, with a little help from her, and his dad, Nate (Owen Wilson) and his loving, but lonely sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), who has always been there for him, but he’s not convinced it’s a step he is ready to take, and when they walk him to school through the park on his first day, he’s reticent to take off his beloved astronaut helmet.
Thanks to the school’s kindly headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), Auggie has already met three of his classmates: the chatty Charlotte (Elle McKinnon); the reserved Jack Will (Noah Jupe); and two-faced Julian (Bryce Gheisar), who performs niceness around adults but harbors a serious mean streak. He soon meets another classmate, the immediately kind-to-him Summer (Millie Davis), and likes his energetic teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), but school is still difficult for Auggie as he knows the other kids are looking at him, even if nobody is directly being mean. Every day makes him question whether he’ll ever be able to feel accepted and truly find his place in the world. I can’t imagine anyone, kid or adult, ever being disappointed with this endearing adaptation of a beloved book that has great messages of never judging a person by their looks and to always choose kind, which is something that we all need to learn from in this day and age. While the film’s premise feels prone to being sentimental, it’s ultimately quite poignant, as this is a family-oriented tale in which people make mistakes in the way they treat one another, but learn and grow in a way that doesn’t feel condescending to the film’s younger audience. Co-writer and director Stephen Chbosky showed he had an interest in digging into the psyche of the adolescent mind in “The Perks of Being a Wildflower,” and here, he again shows his compassion for youth and the difficulties of finding one’s place. This film could easily be played for tears or easy sentimentality, but director Chbosky finds the reality of the situation much more wondrous. The film’s story packs a significant natural emotional weight, but what lets it work is an impressive sense of tone that prevents the material from ever feeling overwhelming. An important part of that is simply the characterization of Auggie, who is really just a remarkable human being. While he certainly gets handed his fair share of gut punches and is forced to shed more than a few tears, he is also a sweet and normal kid who loves Star Wars and expresses a wonderful sense of self-deprecation — opening the film by referring in voice over to his birth as a joke, with his deformity being the punchline. The film leans on strong characters to tell a warm, meaningful story. Director Stephen Chbosky makes the smart decision to split the film into various “chapters” that revolve around a different character. Though Auggie is very much the lead protagonist, the film doesn’t focus exclusively on him, and that’s its biggest strength. This approach ensures supporting players like Olivia, Jack Will, and Olivia’s old friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) are afforded more characterization than otherwise. The film’s bigger story is that even though Auggie’s family — his parents, his sister, even his dog — has bent their lives around his, they, too, are dealing with their own struggles, so are Auggie’s friends, and even his enemies. Via’s story is told from her perspective, which adds layers to our understanding of her equally shattering story of living in a house where she was mostly overlooked by a mother and father busy taking care of a sick child. Lonely, Via also ends up discovering that her lifelong best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has changed over the summer. She joins theater and makes a new friend, Justin (Nadji Jeter), but simultaneously grapples with feeling as if she’s in second place regarding her parents’ affections — something she’s grown used to, given Auggie’s great need for care and attention. Her story is all the more touching because of her love for him; she isn’t bitter so much as desperately lonely. Auggie’s friend Jack gets his own story, too, showing a sweet boy who nevertheless hesitated to get close to the new kid who looked different. The messages can be a little heavy-handed but no less worthy: You never know what someone else is going through. Even though Auggie and Via’s parents don’t get their own dedicated narratives, their agony and fear is in the background. Auggie’s mother makes a particularly interesting character as a woman who gave up her dreams of a PhD to care for her son and now feels both thrilled and guilty about getting her own life back. It turns out that learning about other people’s fears, wants, hurts, and joys can make everything those people do — the bad stuff and the good stuff — make more sense and as the school year goes on, they all grow in their maturity and relationships with one another, and in their ability to experience empathy.
Director Chbosky handles these transitions with skill, never lingering on one for too long. Despite the difficult themes, director Chbosky maintains a light touch and provides a solid amount of both tears and laughs, but the ending result will have you unequivocally cheering. There are surreal moments, including the recurring image of Chewbacca as one of Auggie’s equally eye-catching classmates. When Jack asks Auggie whether he’s ever contemplated plastic surgery, Auggie responds, “Dude, this is after plastic surgery. It takes a lot of work to look this good.” In the wrong hands, this film could have been a slog, filled with platitudes about treating others the way you want to be treated, but noted child-whisperer Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) directs the drama, mostly avoiding treacle with a script he co-adapted from R. J. Palacio‘s beloved best-selling children’s novel and thanks to its writers, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, neatly avoids from becoming a didactic after-school special about why it’s important for people to be kind. This is a tough-minded film that reminded so much of how I used to love the classic family films I grew up with. A film that doesn’t dwell on special effects, talking animals or a big budget, but has deeper thoughts and real themes that enthralls the inner kid in all of us. It’s moving, funny and tenderhearted in an authentic way that shows us that we have to see through the eyes and soul of another person, rather than seeing what that person looks like. It’s the kind of film that all kids and families should see, because it literally speaks about how kindness can make the world a much better, much safer, and much nicer place, but it’s also the kind that’s not quite perfect. Of course, much of the story is about Auggie integrating into school and the challenges he faces, especially socially. While it works very well, we are given some somewhat clichéd characters here, for example, the bully who can only make fun of him & the sweet girl who likes him but is initially afraid to show it. Plus, it does seem a bit odd when the children sometimes speak very maturely for 10 year olds. Also, Miranda’s “backstory” tries to redeem her, but does not really explain why she goes from being Via’s best friend to completely ignoring her, even the sudden turn-around of the rest of the student body is also left unexplained. However, despite this flaws, the film is well uplifted, all thanks to the terrific, well-chosen cast. With convincing prosthetics and makeup that makes look nearly unrecognizable, the wondrous Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Book of Henry) proves once again why he is one of this generation’s finest child actors, aptly blending drama and comedy for a well-rounded turn that makes his Auggie instantly likable and sympathetic. Tremblay’s performance adds a needed dimension and depth to his character of a boy with facial differences. Owen Wilson plays the goofy, lovable father to a tee, and Julia Roberts is in her element as a doting mom. Admittedly, Roberts’ part is a bit of an archetype, but that’s more the way it was written than how Roberts plays it. Izabela Vidovic gets the most to do here and she delivers incredibly. Auggie’s young classmates, played by the likes of Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, and Millie Davis, are equally good, playing their roles with skill. In supporting roles, Danielle Rose Russell, Nadji Jeter, Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin also deliver good-natured performances. On the whole, ‘Wonder’ is a feel-good crowd pleaser that is complex enough to be funny and touching.
Directed – Stephen Chbosky
Rated – PG
Run Time – 113 minutes