“Wonder” is the story of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with a genetic facial deformity attending school for the first time, bravely marching into middle school while daring to be born different. You cringe along with his parents as he disappears into a sea of fifth graders as they say a quiet prayer: “Dear God, please let them be nice to him.”
His parents, Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts), who have sheltered Auggie, know they have to let him wade into those treacherous middle school waters. It might be rough, scared, hard and hurtful, but without the risk, there would be no reward.
If this were just the tale of Auggie’s trials in the fifth grade as a new kid who’s visibly different, the film would be a heartwarming, possibly syrupy-sweet trifle of a tale. But what you come to discover about “Wonder” is it’s much more than just a story of one person overcoming adversity or physical setbacks. Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s book, co-written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, “Wonder” is a story that’s enormously generous of perspective.
This isn’t just Auggie’s story and Auggie’s experience, it’s the story of so many people around him: his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), even his sister’s estranged best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Frequently, we cut away from Auggie’s narration and are shown the experiences of those around him, titled with chapter headings, with their own voices explaining their interpretations of events. It does get a bit messy at times, jumping into and out of perspectives, and the stories are spread a bit thin, rather than delving deeply.
However, sharing the point of view is a smart way to illustrate the ways in which friendships are complicated by our own projections, assumptions, miscommunications and slights. While Auggie certainly has a more outwardly obvious struggle, everyone around him is struggling in their own way. And Auggie isn’t perfect, either. He’s a young boy dealing with an immensely difficult situation, but the world doesn’t always revolve around him, and he needs to be gently reminded of that sometimes.
The film also smartly undercuts its own sentimentality, never dwelling too long in the pathos or poignancy, cutting the tension with a typically 10-year-old burp or fart joke. It’s likely you will cry, but you won’t feel manipulated into doing so — those tears are rightfully earned.
The glue that holds the film together is the wonderfully warm Roberts, who even unleashes her signature laugh for a moment. She does most of the emotive heavy lifting, but, Vidovic, as Auggie’s sister Via, is a wonder herself, expressing wordlessly the burden of a sibling who doesn’t need as much attention as her brother, but hopes for some anyway. Jupe is a young star on the rise, and he’s extremely sensitive as the friend who learns that standing up for others means standing up for himself.
The messages of “Wonder,” woven throughout by the actions of the characters, and as “precepts” outlined by teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) are ones we should all take to heart: to choose kindness, and to define ourselves through our deeds. These ideas are earnest, yes, and heartfelt. We could all stand to grant a little kindness to ourselves and others right about now.
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Noah Jupe, Izabela Vidovic.
Running time: 113 minutes