REVIEW – ‘Wonder’

The feel-good film of 2017 is here. And part of me wants to run for the hills. Those of us without children generally steer well-clear of the kind of cinematic fare showcasing the life and times of kids and their perilous journey through prepubescent hell. But with Wonder, we get something that sidesteps the nauseating preachy mentality this genre usually delivers, and instead are gifted with a film so completely touching and joyful, it’s impossible not to love. Yes, it’s sappy and schmaltzy, but I loved every damn minute of it.

Following the life of one remarkable young boy, Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman (the sublime Jacob Tremblay), a 10 year-old born with an unfortunate craniofacial disorder known as Treacher Collins Syndrome, which causes facial abnormalities. After suffering through 27 plastic surgery procedures to correct these genetic deformities, Auggie has already been through more trauma than most will their entire lives. But it hasn’t affected his spirit. He’s a gentle and sweet kid who loves all science, Star Wars, and video games. He’s even pinned his 27 hospital bracelets on his bedroom wall, as a humourous badge of honour for what he’s endured.

Putting her own life and career aspirations on hold, Auggie’s mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), has been homeschooling her beloved son since he was a child. But the time has come for him to join a real school, with the commencement of fifth grade fast approaching. Auggie’s father, Nate (Owen Wilson), fears the absolute worst, knowing how difficult school can be for any child who doesn’t quite fit the “norm.” Despite their trepidation, they both realise they can’t protect Auggie from the real world forever.

Their fears for Auggie’s treatment at the hands of his new classmates soon become an unfortunate reality. His introduction to school life are filled with stares, name-calling and vicious rumours. He’s segregated and isolated, with most of the torment stemming from the most popular kid in his class – a trust-fund spoilt brat Julian (Bryce Gheisar), who seems hell-bent on turning everyone against his new classmate.

But there is respite in the care of the educators at Auggie’s school. The principal Mr. Tushman (a typically wonderful Mandy Patinkin) has his back, as does his homeroom teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), who works tirelessly to change his student’s minds on how to treat your fellow-man. It’s not long before Auggie finds a few heroes to defy Julian’s dominion over the class, namely the kind-hearted Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who soon becomes Auggie’s best friend, and the sympathetic Summer (Millie Davis), who’s tired of the mean ways of her own “friends.”

It’s here where Wonder sets itself apart from what we have come to expect from cinema of this genre, as it deviates its narrative to focus on the perspective of several characters surrounding Auggie. Older sister Via (a revelatory Izabela Vidovic) takes our attention, as we witness how Auggie’s condition has affected her life. Without a shred of bitterness, she’s become accustomed to her family’s focus being solely focused on the plight of her younger brother, but it’s hard for her not to desperately wish for just a moment’s attention, on occasion. Making life worse for poor Via, she’s beginning her first year of high school, and soon realises she’s completely alone, after her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), ditches her for a bunch of shiny new friends.

We also take Jack Will’s perspective, and the complicated battle he suffers between his urge to remain loyal to his newfound friend and the peer pressure placed on him by Julian to follow his directive to steer clear. It’s a complex mix of emotions that will ultimately lead Jack to unknowingly deliver a devastating betrayal to Auggie. It’s rare to see the crushing pressure young people face at school portrayed with such delicacy and reverence, and it becomes one of the film’s crowning achievements. There’s even some respite for our villain Julian, as we see a sympathetic glimpse of the natural and origins of his cruel behaviour. The moral of Wonder ultimately becomes one of all young people facing problems, as they slog their way to learning who they are. It’s just some, like Auggie’s, are more obvious than others.

At face-value, Wonder appears to be your typical heart-tugger, feel-good family film, purposely crafted to force its message of acceptance into your brain. And there’s a hefty dose of that. But writer-director Stephen Chbosky avoids the typical foils and clichés so frustratingly inherent in this genre, and find the true warmth and heart of this tale. His dialogue is believable and honest, especially the interactions of the younger characters, and he’s crafted the film in a breezy flow that never feels forced. It’s overloaded with beats to make the tears well in your eyes (tissues are a must), but they all feel entirely earned, and never forced.

As shown with his previous work on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky is a writer-director who understands the plight of youth. With Wonder, he’s crafted a beautifully moving tale of kids struggling to determine who they will become, and the difficulty of the adults surrounding them who desperately want to remedy any issues, but know they must let their kids find their own way. It’s the kind of cinematic portrait both young and old will empathise and identify with. It doesn’t hurt Chbosky has a brilliant cast of actors filling those roles.

As Auggie and Via’s parents, Roberts and Wilson are perfectly cast, bringing overflowing warmth and heart to their supporting roles. Roberts, toning down the glamour we often know her for, is gorgeously maternal, as she suffers the crushing consternation every mother must feel, as they send their child off into the big, bad real world. Wilson is his typically cool-dude self, and his injections of comedy are much-needed in such a heavy plot. They’re the ultimate doting parents you will cheer for, and the two actors make a terrific team together.

With a character who could easily have been somewhat insufferable (a teen girl moans about her life, while her disfigured brother is relentlessly tormented by the world around him), Vidovic gives Via a deep level of sympathy and empathy that will grab your heart. She adores her brother, and is as protective of him as any other family member. But all kids need the attention of their parents sometimes, and her character arc is a highlight. Vidovic’s performance is endearing and captivating, and her voyage of self-discovery and acceptance is glorious cinema.

But, like his underrated work (shoulda been nominated) work in Room, the real star here is naturally Tremblay. His deeply emotive eyes shine through the heavy prosthetics, which many actors would crumble underneath. He can convey a wide range of emotions with just the turn of his head or the volume of his dialogue, and its a masterful performance, well beyond his years. There’s something so instantly lovable about Tremblay, and it’s impossible not to be moved by what he delivers here. Once he opens up to his new friends, there’s beautiful chemistry throughout, particularly with Auggie and Jack. Their friendship feels entirely authentic, and its a credit to both Tremblay and Jupe. Auggie will capture your heart like few characters this year, and his journey is one you can’t help but root for.

I can admit to being a fairly grumpy, cynical soul, and this is not the kind of film I normally rush out to see. These films are usually so overly sweet and emotionally manipulative that it makes me gag and groan. But the charm and warmth of Wonder are just too intoxicating to resist. Is it sweet and manipulative? Of course it is. But it’s so damn beautiful and uplifting, you can’t hold that against it. It’s an emotional rollercoaster which will keep a lump in your throat and tears in your eye throughout its  entire 113 minutes of screen-time. Just give in to it. You’ll be thankful that you did.

One could choose to cynically rip this film apart, but in the end, as the film teaches us, it’s better to choose to be kind.