A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2017

WONDER jjj
½ 

2017, PG-13, 113 mins.

 

Jacob Tremblay as Auggie  /  Owen Wilson as Nate  /  Izabela Vidovic as Via  /  Julia Roberts as Isabel  /  Noah Jupe as Jack Will

Directed by Stephen Chbosky  /  Written by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne, based on the book  by R.J. Palacio

When I stop and think about how eye rollingly sentimental and shamefully manipulative WONDER could have been under the wrong direction it literally makes me shiver.  

Here's an uplifting and inspirational coming of age family drama - based on the 2012 novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio - that concerns a 10-year-old boy that suffers from a socially distancing congenital disorder that has horribly deformed his face.  It would have been oh-so-easy for any lesser filmmaker to sensationalize this poor lad's condition for the purposes of cheap dramatic payoffs, but WONDER is helmed with great observational honesty by director Stephen Chbosky, whom previously directed the sensational high school drama THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.  Not only does he display a tactfully sensitive approach to the underlining material, but he's also surprisingly democratic in his handling of all of the characters that surround this afflicted child, which allows for WONDER to come off as an infinitely more well rounded portrait of a struggling family than most similar films that I've seen as of late.   

Chbosky also displayed his acute affinity for tapping into the mindsets of a multitude of fragile minded characters in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, so WONDER serves a compliment to that film as a spiritual sequel of sorts, only this time honing in on far younger characters that are dealing with issues both physical and emotional.  If anything, both dramas have a strong connective tissue of dealing with the ethereal bonds of friendship and how those bonds are beset with many of life's challenges and roadblocks.  Early on in the film we are introduced to a Manhattan residing fifth grader named August "Auggie" Pullman (ROOM's superb Jacob Tremblay) who seems like every other ordinary pre-pubescent child: he loves Mindcraft, Star Wars, comic books, and movies.  Yet, outwardly he suffers from debilitating facial abnormalities thanks to having Treacher Collins Syndrome, which he was unfortunately born with.  He has gone through one arduous operation after another, most of them helping him to gain some semblance of a normal appearance, whereas others were required to allow for him to see and hear properly. 

 

 

Because hospital stays have overwhelmed his young life, Auggie has been lovingly nurtured, raised and home schooled by his steadfastly caring mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), who has put her own academic and occupational life on hold since her son's birth.  Isabel and her husband Nate (Owen Wilson) do reach a troubling point in Auggie's upbringing where they realize that the only way he can achieve some semblance of normalcy in his life is by going to a real school and interacting with other kids and adults.  Auggie begrudgingly and bravely agrees, even though he knows that being heavily ostracized by his peers over his appearance will prove inevitable.  Isabel and Nate are even more worried that sending Auggie to school could have potentially devastating impacts on his life, but they also could have positive ones as well if handled just right.  Auggie's first day at school is arguably more nerve wracking for his parents than him, especially when they remove his astronaut helmet (something that Auggie insists on always wearing while out in public). 

I don't really want to say much more about the overall plot to WONDER, other than to point out that the narrative covers the entirety of Auggie's year at his private school and all of the new challenges that he finds himself embroiled in on a daily basis.  It could be said that WONDER most definitely follows some well worn and familiar story conceits, like how Auggie finds himself an easy target for the chronic emotional bullying of a local rich student as well as the somewhat shy and reserved girl that may or may not become a confiding soul mate later on.  There's also the obligatory congenial minded, yet trendy and hip teacher that helps foster a newfound sense of confidence in Auggie, not to mention a climax that takes place in a school assembly that works relative overtime at bringing audience members to both applause and tears.  WONDER certainly isn't subtle in its execution of Auggie's arc towards greater self actualization and independence.  Then there is also something to be said about enduring a film that features an endlessly bright minded, intrepidly intelligent, yet physically deformed child being tormented for two hours by many of his malicious peers, which frequently makes it a difficult one to engage with. 

Yet, the one overriding element that separates WONDER from other films of its ilk is in how much faith Chbosky places not only in his audiences, but his characters.  I've seen countless films that show a startling lack of regard for the people that surround the young main protagonist.  What Chbosky does here, though, is infinitely more dramatically rich and satisfying in the sense that he layers his film with multiple chapters within Auggie's larger personal story that intimately hone in on most of the key players that figure in on his life, either directly or indirectly.  The kaleidoscope of different prerogatives that pepper the story gives the entire film a fresh and unique perspective, especially for those around Auggie that are trying to cope with their very own insecurities and issues.  Isabel, for example, is dealing with empty nest syndrome and struggling with feelings of loneliness not having her son with her at every waking moment of the day.  One of the most compelling vignettes belongs to Auggie's older sister Via (an impeccably natural Izabela Vidovic) who's dealing with her own unique issues of being a largely invisible child behind the shadow of Auggie's condition.  We learn of how she developed a stronger kinship to her now dead grandmother and even get details about her relationship with her former best friend in Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who seems distant and aloof after being separated from Via for most of the summer.  Other films would have made Miranda a one dimensional character of spite, but WONDER even develops her as a surprisingly conflicted young adult with issues uniquely her own.

The surprisingly well thought out subplots don't end there, especially with a long running one between Auggie and his developing friendship with a working class scholarship student named Jack (Noah Jupe), who feels torn between his closeness to Auggie and maintaining his more popular friendship with the very bullies that verbally berate Auggie everyday.  Jack is not a mean child, but rather a conflicted one, and Chbosky's graceful handling of his captainship with Auggie is embodied both heartbreaking tension and eventually longing.  WONDER also could have easily disregarded the parents as well, but they're so wonderfully portrayed by both Roberts and Wilson with great depth and feeling; Wilson himself obviously is on board for some anxiety reducing comic relief, but even he's so carefully understated here and effective that he never becomes a buffoon-life caricature. 

I haven't even begun to talk about Tremblay yet, who was so criminally unrecognized for an Oscar nomination for his tour de force performance in ROOM.  Much like, for example, Eric Stoltz in 1985's MASK, Tremblay's face is all but obscured by facial appliances and makeup throughout the entirety of WONDER, but he nevertheless finds a manner of conveying this child's deeply rooted fears and apprehensions with his soulful eyes.  Tremblay also makes Auggie a commendable character of boundless optimism despite his horrific condition, and his guilelessness and vulnerability make him more fully realized as a character.  Nearly stealing the film is Vidovic's oftentimes painfully melancholic turn as his sister, who manages to evoke a young girl ravaged with feelings of neglect and frustration that's still an endless figure of generosity to her younger sibling.  Her character alone is indicative of how exemplarily well handled WONDER is at crafting characters beyond cookie cutting stereotypes and clichés. 

The manner that Chbosky wrangles together this film's multiple characters and story threads is impressive to say the least, and even when WONDER seems like it's perhaps working a bit too hard to methodically tug at our collective heartstrings, it reigns itself back in to provide a remarkably balanced and nuanced tale of school and family strife and the struggles that many people go through in their relationships with someone that's suffering and trying to mend for the best.  Perhaps better than most recent family films, WONDER understands the burdensome ebbs and flows of life and the unpredictable detours that one finds while on that journey.  Chbosky's film may lack restraint in parts in its effort to be a memorable three-hankie drama, but I found it deeply moving and compelling rendered in unexpected and refreshing ways.  

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