Wonder looks as if it was made by a committee to manipulate its audience into crying as much as possible. As if casting Jacob Tremblay wasn’t enough, his character of Auggie has facial deformities that makes his eyes look like actual tears, while his father – played by Owen Wilson – feels straight out of Marley & Me, complete with lovable dog. Wonder should be a saccharine, pandering film that tries at every turn to leave its audience in tears – and at times it comes dangerously close to being just this – but Wonder instead becomes a inspiring and sincere film about kindness and caring for others that transcends the usual YA adaption trappings.
Tremblay plays August “Auggie” Pullman, a 10-year-old with a facial deformity that has had over a dozen operations in his short lifetime. These surgeries have allowed him to see and hear, leaving noticeable scars that he usually likes to hide by wearing a space helmet. With Auggie preparing to enter middle school his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and father Nate (Wilson) decide it’s time for him to stop being homeschooled and go to school with other kids his age.
The key to Wonder’s success is director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky, who last adapted his own The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the screen with great success. Chbosky knows how to present characters – especially young ones – as multifaceted, layered contradictions. Rarely is a character in Wonder just what their first impression gives off, often hiding more below the surface.
Wonder’s most brilliant touch utilizes Chbosky’s gift with character by changing the film’s point-of-view to show the story from different perspectives. The story begins with Auggie, but then switches to the struggles of his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who is largely ignored by her family. But then the story can switch to Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who returned from summer break and has also begun to ignore Via, or Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the only kid at school who befriends Auggie. Whenever Wonder presents a character that seems irredeemable, the film shows that everyone is the star of their own story.
Almost the entire supporting cast is fleshed out enough to warrant Auggie’s occasional demotion into a secondary character, but the world that Wonder builds around this character is substantial and touching. Wonder builds a support system and de facto family around Auggie piece by piece. With Perks, Chbosky showed the direct influence family and friends can have on individuals, and Wonder feels like a natural progression of that, spanning multiple schools, friend groups and families.
The only problem with such a well-realized community is that when a character appears that is mostly one-sided, as with Auggie’s main bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), there’s a strong desire for more layers that aren’t there. Still, this is more than made up for by a satisfying, strong supporting cast across the board. Tremblay is almost as emotionally powerful as he was in Room, despite being caked in pounds of facial makeup. Wilson is charming as the father, with a restraint and simple sweetness to his character that easily makes him a favorite. No surprise that even in small roles, both Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs are able to steal every scene they’re in. But it’s Vidovic, Jupe and Russell – the film’s unexpected focus at times – that elevate Wonder with their realistic characterizations and simple acts of love shown towards those around.
Wonder is a genuine, heartfelt family film that knows how to make its audience care about its characters and their struggles, rather than just settling for manipulating its audience with moments of sadness. In a world that can often seem so cruel and mean, a film like Wonder is a refreshing way of looking at the world from a different, good perspective.