By Anna Power
Based on the novel of the same name by RJ Palacio, Wonder follows the life of August Pullman, affectionately known as Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) as he embarks on his first year of school, having been home schooled due to extensive reconstructive surgery for several years of his infancy. Now a pre-teen and with lifelong facial deformity, August must face his fears and go out into the world.
Like a young Rocky Dennis from Bogdanovich’s Mask, these tentative steps out of his comfort zone are a seismic shift not to be underestimated. Other than in front of his family, Auggie never ventures out without his astronaut helmet on, which provides him with more than just a physical defense against people’s reactions to his deformity. His loving family are also understandably apprehensive, but both his mum (Julia Roberts) and dad (Owen Wilson) are putting on a brave face. The school is also concerned that his transition be as painless as possible, and the kindly Principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) sets up a pre-meet with three students in the summer holidays to show him around. Strong in science, a Star Wars aficionado, and able to produce a snappy retort to hold his own when needed, Auggie clicks with fellow student Jack Will (Noah Jupe).
While the heartbreaking trials and tribulations unfold involving bullying, peer pressure and friendships made & broken, life settles somewhat, and the film takes a turn by looking more deeply into the people in Auggie’s life, who all have their own problems to deal with. We see Auggie’s mum (Roberts), who abandoned her academic career to put her son first for all those years of surgeries; Auggie’s sister (Izabela Vidovic), forever playing second fiddle to her brother, resigned to her emotional needs going unmet, is lonely having been abandoned by her childhood friend Miranda and is grieving her beloved grandmother (Sonia Braga). We also get to peer deeper into the life of Auggie’s friend Jack Will (Jupe), and find out that he’s a scholarship kid, used to dealing with prejudice of a different kind at prep school and priming him for friendship with Auggie. Unfortunately, dad (Wilson) seems to have missed out on a backstory, and although his character is loveable, funny and tender, we know very little about him and he is left frustratingly vague by comparison.
Director Stephen Chbosky, who also co-wrote the script, has brought the story to the screen creating moments that are genuinely affecting and unashamedly uplifting. In these difficult times there is room for films to inspire, and its message of triumph in the face of adversity, the power of kindness, and the importance of family and friends has a Capraesque simplicity to it that can be profoundly arresting. Further weight is given by the remarkable on screen depth of Tremblay (Auggie), who follows his highly acclaimed performance in Room, demonstrating ability beyond his years.
It’s a pity that a film that has such an emotional impact, never missing a beat, should in its finale go for over-the-top sentimentality in the form of a school awards ceremony, and a voiceover that is both totally unnecessary and emotionally manipulative. But as this misstep comes right at the end of what is an incredibly beautiful film, with strong performances throughout, it can be overlooked and easily forgotten.
After watching Wonder you are guaranteed to leave the cinema, adults and children alike, feeling truly inspired, with your heart open, a warm glow inside and a sense that whatever life throws at you, things are going to be ok.
Wonder is in cinemas from Friday December 1st.