Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe
Running time: 113 minutes
Born with a rare medical facial disfigurement, science obsessed August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Tremblay) has spent his early years under a toy astronaut’s helmet, home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Roberts). Approaching the start of fifth grade, Isabel and husband Nate (Wilson) make the decision to send Auggie to middle-school. As we know, school can be an unforgiving place; but amidst the teasing, tears, and tantrums, there are timely teachings and touching companionships to be found.
From a child raised exclusively within the four walls of a shed-turned-bedroom, to one with Treacher Collins syndrome, Jacob Tremblay is no stranger to playing the outcast. After his tremendous break-out performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s powerful 2015 film Room, it was only a matter of time before the remarkable child star would be back moving us with another demanding central gig.
In Stephen Chbosky’s latest, Wonder – adapted from R. J. Palacio’s 2012 novel – he’s barely recognisable behind the make-up – “IS THAT HIM!?” my bemused girlfriend exclaimed after I told her who it was – as his young shoulders carry yet another challenging weight. Like Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the heavy prosthetic layering restricts more subtle facial movement; however, just as Hurt did, Tremblay draws expression from other means – be it through a timid shuffle down the hallway or a longing gaze behind slanted, sorrowful eyes. Needles to say, a portrayal of this nature carries with it its fair share of risk. Thankfully, Tremblay turns in a mature, sensitive performance in a film of mature, sensitive performances that is sure to wet those eyes and warm those cockles – even if the film as a whole doesn’t really give us anything new.
Saying that, Wonder is clearly under no pretence about what kind of film it wants to be, and its poster tag-line-cum-Twitter hashtag ‘Choose kind’ carries with it a clear message and a sentiment that runs true throughout. From the decision to send your vulnerable child out into the big bad world of the education system, to the one about what kind of person you want to be, this is a film all about choices. Even if its innovative head isn’t screwed on, Wonder’s heart is certainly in the right place, and its lessons around kindness and acceptance are as pertinent as they have ever been.
Of all the choices here, however, it is a narrative one that is perhaps the most inspired. Those that have seen the trailer but are perhaps less familiar with the source material might be expecting a tale centred solely around Auggies’ struggles as he begins mainstream school for the first time. And while this remains the bedrock of the narrative, there are welcomed – and somewhat unexpected – explorations into the impact this has on parents, siblings, and peers alike. There are friendships lost, friendships found; words of love, words of hate; and Minecraft, of course.
And grated on top of it all we have the generous portions of cheddar we were probably all expecting. The usual suspects are all in there: the neatly poetic, all-too-convenient character wisdoms (“You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out”), the tacked-on heart string tugs (cue some more Marley and Me-ing with Wilson), and music telling us when – and indeed how – to feel. There’s even room for Mandy Patinkin (Hey! For me, he can do no wrong) to show up as the wise ol’ school principal and walk us through the definitive how-to on being better people: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see” – which translates as “Hello, my name is Mr Tushman. You joined my middle-school. Prepare to learn…”
A combination of savoury and sweet, with stellar performances across the board from a largely youthful cast, Wonder serves up a conventional, but nevertheless moving slice of warm goodness that might just be what we all need as the cold weather starts to set in.