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.
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
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.
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.
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.