Wonder will win over audience’s affection with its charming take on R.J. Palacio’s novel of the same name.
Wonder is an inspirational poster of a movie, which I say in the least cynical way possible. Like director Stephen Chomsky’s last movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wonder knows how to emotionally invest its audience in its characters and story. You cheer when it wants you to cheer, laugh when it wants you to laugh, and cry when it wants you to cry. In a lesser movie, it might have felt like manipulation or washed with sentimentally. But Wonder earns the emotions it makes you feel, even if it has to push you just a tad.
Based on J.C. Palacio’s novel of the same name, Wonder follows 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) as he navigates his first year of middle school after being homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). That in itself already sounds like the plot of a movie. But there’s one thing complicating Auggie’s transition into a “real school.” Auggie was born with a facial deformity that required 27 corrective surgeries. Still, he looks anything but ordinary. But Auggie is just a normal kid, a fact that he tries to emphasize in his narration — he loves Star Wars and video games and wants to be an astronaut. The other kids just don’t know it yet. Up until now, Auggie has worn a space helmet whenever he was in public. So, the jump from near isolation to school is anything but easy for him. However, it’s a decision that Isabel and Auggie’s father Nate (Owen Wilson) had to make sooner or later.
When starting school, Auggie has some allies — affable school principal Mr. Tushman, Daveed Diggs’ supportive and insightful Mr. Browne, and Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who becomes the first student to truly befriend Auggie — and some enemies — mainly the school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Wonder makes you incredibly sympathetic to Auggie’s plights. Not just because of what is happening to him on screen, but because of the Tremblay’s incredible effective performance. His quiet, downturned expression and high, quiet voice make it incredibly easy to sympathize with him. But more importantly his defeatist attitude towards the cruelty from kids, which he is hurt by, but fully expected, makes you empathize with his loneliness. Even if the movie is an amplified version of it.
And while the movie starts off solidly in Auggie’s point of view, it shifts to his sister Via’s (Izabela Vidovic) point-of-view. Similarly to Lady Bird, we quickly realize that this movie is not only about Auggie, but the people surrounding him. Via knows that Auggie is the center of her parents’ universe, but she’s okay with that. She’s learned to deal with her own struggles on her own, but as she approaches this new year of school, it becomes harder for her, especially since her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has suddenly stopped talking to her.
Wonder, the book and the movie, is targeted at kids. And this shifting point-of-view — we eventually get stories from the perspective of Via, Miranda, and Jack Will — is a clearly a way to help kids learn the lesson of empathy. Chomsky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower is so effective because he has an understanding of the way that young people think and feel. Particularly the feeling of loneliness. In Perks, the main character’s aching longing for connection is palpable and so is Auggie’s. And like Perks, the way that the people around the main character interact is almost as important as the main character’s journey.
I don’t want to say that if you didn’t like Wonder, then you don’t have a heart. But this is really one of those movies that can cheer anyone’s day up. It’s really the feel-good movie of the year. That’s not to take away its cinematic achievement. Chomsky is a good director with an ability to imbue emotion on his audience. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, the movie ends with a Passion Pit song.