Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Nadji Jeter, Bryce Gheisar, Danielle Rose Russell, Millie Davis, Daveed Diggs
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 11/17/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 16, 2017
There comes a moment in Wonder that is rather unexpected. After following a single character—whose life and struggles seem more than enough to carry an entire story—for a while, the film suddenly transitions to the story of another character, who has existed in the background until then. That character's story proceeds, and it's enlightening, because we might not have been thinking much of the character until then. We noticed her, for sure, because she's a major component of the first character's story. We did not, though, think of her experience as the most significant one within this particular group of characters. The surprise is that her life story is, in its own and unique way, as affecting as the story the film had been exploring until the switch.
It shouldn't be a surprise, of course, but it is. An adaptation of R.J. Palacio's novel, director Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad, and Jack Thorne's screenplay does such a sympathetic job of communicating the story of a 10-year-old boy, who was born with a genetic disorder that resulted in facial differences, that we aren't really considering the lives of the other characters on screen. We do consider them, but it's only in regards to how they relate to the boy.
That, ultimately, is the film's point. The narrative's change in perspective is not a one-time thing. It becomes a pattern, as the film opens its arms wider and wider. By the end, we have a fairly good picture of how this family and the boy's friends exist as a unit and within their own bubbles of sadness, loneliness, and a feeling of not really being part of something beyond their own lives.
The boy is named Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who has had over 20 surgeries since he was born to ensure that he could breathe and to correct some of the most severe differences to his face. He's a smart kid, homeschooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), but it's more than book smarts.
Auggie is keenly aware of how others look at him, and he has developed a system for meeting those looks. The boy mostly stares down, away from the staring eyes of kids and adults alike, and he can tell a lot about a given person by the kind of shoes that they wear. Before his first day at an actual school, an "adventure" encouraged by his father Nate (Owen Wilson) a trio of fellow students gives Auggie a tour of the building. He can tell that Jack (Noah Jupe) is a "hand-me-down kid" and that Julian (Bryce Gheisar) comes from wealthy parents.
School is, obviously, tough, because kids aren't as good at hiding their feelings about how Auggie looks as adults are—another thing the boy has learned. When Auggie walks through the school's courtyard, his schoolmates look at him and almost reflexively part from his path. As the year progresses, Jack becomes Auggie's friend, and Julian becomes his primary tormentor.
We think we have a handle on the story, and then the film switches, without us really noticing. There's a sister here, whose existence is all but ignored by Auggie, who walks into her room without knocking, and her parents. She's Via (Izabela Vidovic), and she's smart, too, especially in knowing that her life became a secondary role the moment that Auggie was born. She has accepted this, because she doesn't want to add to the worries of her parents.
Via's life during her first year of high school plays out, too, now, as she meets a guy (played by Nadji Jeter) whom she likes, finds that her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) apparently has moved on to a new group of friends, and becomes involved in the school's drama club. Via's experience—her worries, her pain, her grief over the loss of her grandmother (the only family member who would talk to Via about her life), her discovery of unexpected happiness—becomes as vital as Auggie's.
The film doesn't stop with Via. It keeps expanding outward in its perspective and its desire to understand the lives of these other characters. Those other perspectives belong to Jack, whose mother encouraged him to be Auggie's friend and who discovers that he actually wants to be the kid's friend, and to Miranda, who found herself in a broken home without warning and has ignored Via because of her insecurities about herself. Jack, too, ends up hurting his friend without being aware of it, but after seeing how desperate he is to fit in with kids above his socioeconomic station, we can hardly blame him. Everyone has his or her own need to fit in and to be accepted. We can even see a bit of that in Julian, whose bullying becomes more frequent and pronounced as soon as the other kids in school start to see Auggie as just another schoolmate.
We're missing some perspectives, which could be further illuminating. Once Julian faces consequences for his actions, we do ponder if Chbosky and his fellow screenwriters will explore what put the kid face to face with the school principal (played with exceptional compassion by Mandy Patinkin). The film doesn't, which seems like a missed opportunity in this understanding portrait of how and why these characters feel and behave in the ways that they do. It's also missing the perspectives of Auggie and Via's parents, although that simply might be because the film's central focus is on its kids.
What we do get, though, is a genuinely heartwarming film about people trying to be good and decent, as they learn that their own problems are important to understand—not only for their own good but also because it helps them to comprehend how others feel. Wonder is about empathy, and it practices what it preaches.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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