In these weeks before the Academy Awards, I always find myself binge watching nominated films either in the theater, streaming them online, or getting the DVD. Thus, after viewing films like Get Out, Dunkirk, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird and more, I got hooked on Wonder – nominated only in the category of Makeup and Hairstyling – thanks to my young son’s desire to see it.
The film Wonder, based on the New York Times bestselling children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, is not just a story for kids – it sends a powerful message to people of all ages about the importance of treating everyone with respect. It also features strong performances by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, and young Jacob Tremblay (so memorable as Jack in Room) in the role of Auggie, a young boy suffering from Treacher Collins syndrome that causes him to have facial deformity that has required 27 surgeries.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder deftly tackles the difficult story of a boy who has been home schooled by his mother (Roberts) because of his appearance. Auggie’s visage is at first jarring – we see him walking around in a NASA space helmet that obscures his face. When he takes it off his ears are like globs of flesh, his eyes seem a bit askew, his cheeks pulled down and scarred, and there is a feeling that he has been in a car accident or fire and had plastic surgery.
Tremblay overcomes this with a powerful and earnest performance, imbuing Auggie with such depth of heart and soul and love, and we get that all he wants is to have the world accept him as he is, but his parents recognize that middle school doesn’t always work that way. Mom Isabel has put everything into Auggie’s life and education, but she makes a stand about him going to school in hopes that he will be able to have a semblance of a normal life despite the objections of her husband Nate (Wilson).
The first day of school, not easy for most kids to begin with, does not go very well. The things that make Auggie a regular kid – he loves Star Wars movies, Minecraft, outer space, playing with his X-Box, and likes sports – matter little to the other ten-year-old kids that are in his class at Beecher Prep, especially Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who picks on Auggie and makes fun of his braided ponytail, which Auggie wears to be like a Padawan in the Star Wars films.
After suffering all day with Julian’s bullying, Auggie goes home and storms into his sister Via’s (Izabela Vidovic) room, grabs her scissors, and cuts off the ponytail, symbolically severing his protected childhood in a warm, loving home, from what he now must face out in the totally cruel real world.
Despite his difficult first day, his parents convince him to go back to school. Auggie accepts that he will have to endure the taunts of Julian and his buddies but Jack (Noah Jupe), one of the boys in Julian’s group, decides to sit with Auggie at lunch one day. They begin to form a friendship, with Auggie even bringing him home after school much to the delight of Isabel.
Things seem to be going well, and although still bothered by the other boys, Auggie likes school because of Jack. Halloween comes – Auggie’s favorite time of year because he gets to wear a mask – and he is ready to go to school dressed as Boba Fett from Star Wars, but his dog throws up on the costume. Auggie goes to school dressed as Ghost Face (from the Scream movies), but Jack is expecting him to be Fett. When Auggie goes into the classroom Jack notices Auggie but doesn’t know it is he (a clever plot device reminding me of Shakespeare’s use of characters in disguise) so, when prodded by Julian, Jack says negative things about Auggie causing him to run out of class and asks the nurse to tell his mother that he is sick.
Thus Halloween, Auggie’s favorite holiday, is destroyed and so are his spirits. Once home he is unaware that he has ruined a mother-daughter day Isabel and Via have planned. Via, a complex character in her own right, has been feeling neglected because her parents’ world seems to revolve around Auggie, but she deeply loves her brother and decides to forget her own plans and puts on a costume to try to salvage Auggie’s Halloween.
Now we reach the point where we ask the salient questions: can Auggie ever get the kids in the school to treat him like any other kid? Will Via, who has become estranged from her own best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), be able to join the drama club and find new friends, and will Isabel and Nate reconsider their decision and go back to having Isabel home school their son again?
The answer to these questions is spoiler territory, but the way Chobsky gets you to the end is worth not knowing because it is an incredibly enjoyable trip. One of the key things that makes this film so successful is that Chobsky makes a movie about a child with facial deformities not just a movie about a child with facial deformities. Using a chapter-like format, he lets the audience get to know Auggie, Via, Jack, and Miranda more deeply, enriching their characters and broadening the scope of the film to reflect everyone’s journey and how it is affected by events triggered by Auggie’s going to Beecher Prep.
Chobsky’s other amazing accomplishment is that he has made a Julia Roberts movie that is not a Julia Roberts movie. Julia always shines in films (as she does here), but her innate spark is tempered, and she slides into Isabel’s shoes in a way that is convincing and necessary. She also works well with Wilson – whom we expect usually to be engaging in shenanigans of some kind – who is thoroughly believable as the dad who will play video games and bang plastic toy Star Wars lightsabers all day long, but also adds nuances as the concerned father who wants to do what is best for his kids.
The rest of the cast seems perfectly suited for each role, with Mandy Patinkin’s Principal Tushman a comic gem. The setting mostly takes place in the warmth of the Pullman family brownstone and the children’s schools, and there is a sense of those places importance in the overall story. While the film will definitely entertain its target tween audience, it has been crafted in a way as to appeal to all ages.
After watching the movie together, I realized it had a profound effect on my son. He identified with Auggie’s situation and could relate to his appreciation of all things Star Wars, but the main takeaway he had was that the film was truthful – kids can be mean, but they have to be shown and taught the importance of kindness.
In essence that is what the film is all about – kids, teachers, and parents doing the right thing and treating people well. It is something Auggie learns from his parents but, as we see in the film, even some parents need a lesson too, and thus watching this movie provides numerous teachable moments.
Wonder, as the titles implies, is wonderful, and a great film to watch with the whole family and is highly recommended.