An Unexpected Box Office “Wonder”

While the media frenzy over the release of Justice League roared, a low-key family-oriented flick became the surprise hit of the weekend.  Wonder stars Jacob Tremblay (Oscar-nominated for his performance in Room) as ten-year old Auggie Pullman, who was born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a genetic disorder which results in facial deformities.  Home-schooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) to avoid awkward and hurtful interactions in public school, Auggie is thrust into a prep school for fifth grade.  His mother feels it’s the best time for him to take the plunge into a public life, torn between sheltering her son and wanting to push him to have a normal life.  Auggie’s dad, played by Owen Wilson, isn’t sure his son is ready for the challenge, but supports the move to a more traditional educational setting.

The film focuses on Auggie, but contrary to what the film’s marketing might imply, the movie also tells the story of Via, his older sister (played by Izabela Vidovic), who is dealing with her own transitional issues as she navigates high school and a changing social dynamic.  In fact, the story involves the lives of several young people, all trying their best to make it through the obstacle course of adolescence.

Director Stephen Chbosky does a good job of intertwining the characters’ stories in a way that reinforces the main message of the film, which is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  And you never know what burdens another is carrying, so don’t be quick to rush to judgment of anyone.  Life isn’t always what it seems.  What appears to be a straightforward story about a young boy dealing with bullying and unwanted, hurtful stares, is interrupted by returning to an earlier scene and following a new character to get a different point of view on the events that have transpired.  Amongst the storylines, we get to know Auggie’s classmate and first friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a scholarship-kid from a working class family, and Miranda, Via’s former best-friend turned frenemy (played by Danielle Rose Russell).

It’s always dicey when a film’s foundation is based on the acting chops of child actors.  But the performances in Wonder are all strong.  Jacob Tremblay might just score his second Oscar nomination, at the ripe old age of eleven, for his turn as the lovable Auggie.  He doesn’t overplay the role, and is believable as the smart-as-a-whip kid who is exceptionally well-adjusted considering the circumstances.  The rest of the cast of child actors are all solid.  Noah Jupe as Jack Will is especially effective, and Izabela Vidovic pretty much steals the movie with her turn as Via, the under-appreciated sister.  Julia Roberts also deserves credit for her realistic depiction of a mom who’s devoted her life to a son, losing a bit of her own identity along the way.  Owen Wilson adds some levity to the film as Auggie’s dad.

If there’s a criticism of the film, it’s the obvious one.  This is a heart-warming, feel-good film, complete with a character overcoming unfathomable odds to uplift the hearts of audience-goers.  Sometimes it’s a bit syrupy.  But even knowing this going into the film, I was right there with everyone else in the packed theater, shedding a tear during touching moments that overflowed with emotion.  There’s a particular incident in the film that seems to be a bit over-the-top and cliché in terms of its attempt to tug at viewers’ heartstrings.  But to criticize a film of this nature for being too syrupy is like criticizing candy for being too sweet.  That’s its purpose.

Having said that, Wonder is a well-paced adaptation of a popular young adult novel.  It’s PG-rating makes it a solid option for the whole family.  But bring a tissue or two with you, and leave your cynicism at home.

8/10

Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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