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Some Kind Of ‘Wonder’ (Movie Review)

Growing up is a challenge for a variety of reasons. Not being comfortable in your own skin is easily one of them. R.J. Palacio’s bestselling children’s novel Wonder examines this thought in a fairly literal fashion, as it deals with the plight of a young boy with a facial deformity. The book was a huge hit, and now it’s become a likable studio film with A-list actors filling in for the roles. It’s good enough to warrant the natural teary-eyed reactions that come with this sort of coming-of-age drama. That said, it also weaves around areas that could be played too sentimental in lesser films. All of that makes Wonder pretty wonderful.

Room’s Jacob Tremblay stars as August “Auggie” Pullman, the young boy who was in and out of hospitals to look as good as he does. Having been homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), for a good portion of his young life, it is now time for Auggie to go to school with other kids. Auggie’s father, Nate (Owen Wilson), has some reservations about this, but Auggie attempts to start middle school anyway. It’s not easy for him, as the natural reaction of kids his age is to be awkward around him or worse. However, Auggie persists, and slowly others start to see more of who this kid really is.

Buried under special makeup effects, Tremblay hardly resembles himself, but certainly pulls off the attitude of a kid who has already dealt with so much and knows how to laugh about it. Yes, there are times when things are too much for Auggie and Tremblay pulls off those scenes as well, but there is a real talent in selling the lead character by way of positive personality traits. Thanks to how the character was written in the book (I assume) and a smart screenplay by Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne and director Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder allows Tremblay to do more than just rest on the obvious difficulties he would have. The film lets him be a kid, and it’s all the better for it.

Many films have issues with child actor performances when it comes to going too far in the precocious direction. Between this film and Gifted, however, it seems like things are becoming a bit more evenhanded when portraying the standout children that we want to follow along with. Wonder accomplishes this well, which is essential because the film wants to get a lot of mileage out of Auggie and his relationships with the other kids at school.

 

There are some kids to keep track of. Noah Jupe, one of the few highlights in the otherwise terrible Suburbicon, is Jack Will. Jack is a good-hearted kid who is one of the first to be kind to Auggie. Millie Davis’ Summer also falls into this category. On the other hand, Bryce Gheisar’s Julian is a bully. His actions are not fun to watch and they hit the way that’s intended. It’s hard not to react to these scenes, but the film handles these moments well. For all the ways Wonder could manipulate its audience, the film chooses to find strength in not over explaining why certain actions are plain wrong and what it takes to be stronger than a bully.

In addition to Auggie’s journey, it is worth noting that he has a sister. This is Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), who has a pleasant subplot of her own about her first year at high school. The character is allowed to be interesting by positioning her as a kind sister who acknowledges why her parents will never provide her with the same amount of attention. There are no malicious actions here; it’s just a circumstance that occasionally leaves her in the shadow of her brother. It doesn’t hurt that Vidovic does a good job with the Olivia character and her story arc allows for some minor drama that never feels too complicated and a big final sequence that lets her shine.

Unfolding like a book, Wonder takes breaks from Auggie’s narrative to bring the audience into stories like Olivia’s and some of the other characters. It’s a neat conceit that never feels out of place or tacked on. Without being too long, it means Wonder feels like a complete film by the time it ends. We have just enough understanding of who everyone is, which can even be said for the adults who are never given major sequences to enhance further who they are.

It helps that the adult cast is made up of pros. Roberts and Wilson are precisely what the parents need to be. For a simple story like this, they are merely required to be emotional in the right ways at the right time and provide some substantial monologues to help Auggie. Mandy Patinkin plays a sympathetic principal with a couple of big scenes of his own that further highlight the emotional value of a film like this. There’s even enough room for Daveed Diggs to play a cool English teacher.

Wonder isn’t re-writing the way we see these sorts of emotional coming-of-age tales, but much like Auggie, the film has a good head on its shoulders. There’s nothing overly ambitious about it, aside from seeing Auggie’s love of Star Wars find a way to be seen, in addition to some other reoccurring visual motifs. It’s a pretty straight-forward film. However, it does manage to say enough about why it’s right to “choose kind.” In a world where so much bitterness can hurt, a family film with few aspirations beyond showing what it is to be a good person is welcome.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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