Messages in 'Wonder' go deeper than face value
"Wonder" is the kind of movie that should be shown to young and old as a life lesson about how to deal with people who appear to be different. It has a wonderful message about tolerance, acceptance, understanding and respect. There's no guarantee the message would register with all moviegoers, but social ignorance can be cured one person at a time.
Too often films that offer such lofty visions are presented in a demanding way. "Wonder" is not one of those movies. Director Stephen Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") manages to make some very important points while not sacrificing the entertainment elements. He does this through a script lovingly based on the best-selling book by R.J. Palacio and a cast that can deliver emotional moments without being melodramatic.
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has been home schooled all his young life by his mom (Julia Roberts). That was necessary because of the physical complications the youngster was born with that required him to have a long string of surgeries to correct many of the problems. The young boy still has some facial deformities that often get negative reactions.
It's decided that middle school is the perfect time for Auggie to start attending classes with other children. He has the support of his family — including the coolest dad on the planet (Owen Wilson) and a loving sister (Izabela Vidovic) who has had to deal with being an afterthought in the family, as all energy has been focused on Auggie.
That support is needed as Auggie faces both cruel reactions from many of his classmates and an ostracizing because the youngsters fear his medical condition is contagious. The brutal and mean treatment of Auggie reaches such a high degree it is seen as the worst case form of bullying possible.
The only hope is Auggie can win over a few classmates. That starts with Jack (Noah Jupe), who goes from being a fellow student urged by his mother to be kind to Auggie to understanding the rules and regulations of being a true friend. Even that friendship is not an easy path to follow.
Taking on a role that requires so much prosthetics work can be a challenge even to the most seasoned actor. Jacob plays the role of Auggie with such a natural ease that it is easy to forget this is an actor under hours of makeup work. The performance feels real because Jacob gets across the frustration, pain and happiness that a youngster would have in this kind of situation no matter their medical history. He's not playing Auggie as being different, just as a youngster trying to deal with the scariness of life. Because he makes the performance work in that manner, the movie can be appreciated simply as a sweet tale of a very complicated youth.
If "Wonder" — both the book and the film versions — had only been about the impact a young boy with facial deformities has on the people around him, it would have been an enjoyable tale. But there's so much more to the story and movie as it offers a broader look at what it's like to being different.
It's obvious Auggie has to deal with the cruel way people react to those who look dramatically different. But it becomes clear that the pain of feeling like you don't belong, the need for some form of validation and the struggle to deal with the hardships even when they aren't apparent is something that more than one little boy with medical problems has to face.
Overlooking Vidovic's performance as Auggie's sister, Via, would be easy because Auggie's character is such a tent pole for the tale. Vidovic's work softy reveals she's also dealing with major problems. It's equally as interesting to watch her navigate through the pains and pauses of life as it is seeing Auggie's growth.
Even supporting players like Via's former best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), have their dark issues. Miranda struggles with the crippling effects of peer pressure that could not come at a worse time. Via's new boyfriend has been dealing with the constraints he has found from being an only child. And you could not ask for better movie parents than those played by Roberts and Wilson, but they also have their dark moments.
All the family and friends stories go together to make "Wonder" more than just a feel-good story. It is a reminder that everyone must deal with their own demons, even if they aren't obvious ones. How we help and treat each other is what defines the humanity in the world. The wonderful part of "Wonder" is while it never shies away from making serious points, these are never made in a preachy manner. That makes it easier to take the story to heart and not just at face value.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin.
Director: Jacob Chbosky
Rated PG for mild language, thematic elements including bullying
Running time: 113 minutes.