Dir. Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic
Wonder is the kind of movie I love. I saw the trailer and had to fight back the tears as my eyes welled up. I haven’t read the best-selling book which the film is based on, but I had seen Stephen Chbosky’s previous directorial effort where he adapted his own novel, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. I had read that book, and really enjoyed that movie. So I went in to Wonder, expecting to enjoy it, but with the slight trepidation that it could be too saccharine or mawkish. I shouldn’t have worried. The film didn’t disappoint.
The film centres around August Pullman, or Auggie, and his family. Auggie is a boy born with facial differences, and has been home schooled all his life. Now about to go to school for the first time, his family worry about how he will cope when all his other social experiences have resulted in other kids running away or crying. His sister Via, played by Izabela Vidovic, is having her own problems with friends, but feels her parents won’t notice as they’re too busy worried about Auggie. Auggie’s mother, played wonderfully by Julia Roberts, is learning how to deal with Auggie flying the nest, and trying to re-embrace the path she was on before kids. Owen Wilson, his usual charming self, plays Auggie’s father, is just there to reassure Auggie, and tell jokes. Not that it’s a bad performance from Wilson, just that the script requires a lot less of him than the other players.
The best thing about Wonder is that Auggie’s journey through his first year of school, is everyone’s experience of school. Yes, his is magnified by the fact that he looks different, but everyone has had a first day where they know no one. Everyone has struggled to make friends, and lost friends. Most people have experienced some kind of bullying, or even inadvertently been the bully. Stephen Chbosky opens the film by focusing on Auggie’s perspective, and he provides the voiceover, but we soon switch to other perspectives, and other characters delivering the voiceover. This helps to deliver the films central theme, that we are all battling between the requirement to fit in and the need to be ourselves. We get to know Auggie first, which builds up the emotional tension when he is bullied at school, but the other perspectives show that he has his flaws too. He can be self-centred and demanding. Just like any other normal child.
The performances really hold the film together. The cast create a group of characters whom I could happily watch, and spend time with for hours. Julia Roberts is great in an understated performance, and Owen Wilson oozes his causal charm. The real stand out however is Jacob Tremblay, which should be no suprise to those who saw his break out performance in Room. Tremblay shows us he is no fluke, and is wonderful even under the heavy prosthetics required to play the role. Chbosky handles the film with great restraint. He allows every scene to bubble away with emotion, but not in a mawkish way, interjecting with moments of surreal joy which flow from Auggie’s imagination, including extended Star Wars cameos. Yes, the film is manipulative, but with this group of characters, you’re happy to allow yourself to be manipulated. Part of this trick is to make you empathise with all the characters. Even the bully kid has his own problems to deal with. Namely his rich parents, who believe that their son is only a bully because he is too young to be exposed to someone who looks like Auggie. The same rhetoric used by parents who don’t want their children going to the same schools as gender fluid children. Chbosky delicately balances all of his characters motives and feelings, So when the third act arrives, along with the emotional climax, you are left fully satisfied. It would take a cold, cold, heart for anyone to sit through this film and not shed a tear.
The relatabiltity of the movie is a strength, but at times acts as its weakness. The problems Auggie goes through, whilst heartbreaking to witness, are the same problems a lot of kids face. The stakes aren’t raised that much higher, and when they are it can feel a little forced. Most notably, a third act violent encounter. Arguments are ended quickly, and everyone makes it out okay and still friends, but you’ll never really feel like that was in doubt. It’s a well trodden road that you’re being led down, but it’s still an enjoyable and moving one.
The central message of the film is to be nice and understanding to everyone, as you don’t know what it’s like to be them, or what they’re going through. In a way it’s a very similar message to another recent film, one centred around a bear in a rain jacket. Auggie has much in common with Paddington, he looks different to everyone else, but his good heart acts as a kind of everyday heroism, which helps others be the best they can be. It’s a lovely message, and one we need now more than ever.