WONDER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Stars: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupes, Bryce Ghesiar, Daveed Diggs, Millie Price, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell.

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Based on the best-selling 2013 young adult novel written by R J Palacio, Wonder tells the story of 10-year old August Pullman (played by Jacob Tremblay, who was so good in Room), a sensitive and intelligent boy who was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disfiguring craniofacial abnormality. He underwent 27 operations, which has left him with facial scarring. He was home schooled by his caring and overly protective mother Isabella (Julia Roberts), who put her own ambitions and doctoral thesis on hold. August is a bit of a science nerd and Star Wars fan, who dreams of one day becoming an astronaut. He wears a NASA space helmet around the house.

But now his parents, knowing that they can’t shield him from the world forever, decide to send him to Beecher Prep Middle School in Manhattan. The school’s kindly principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) organises for three students to help August adjust to the school and give him an induction tour. The first day at school is hard for August who is teased, bullied and looked at as though he is a freak.

But slowly August is able to break down some of the initial ill feeling and he makes a new friend in Jack (Noah Jupes, who we recently saw as Matt Damon’s son in the dark thriller Suburbicon), until an ill-considered remark puts a strain on their friendship. He also makes a friend in Summer (Millie Davies), and finds a supportive presence in his classroom teacher Mr Browne (played by Daveed Diggs, from the Broadway musical Hamilton), who tries to instil in his students positive moral lessons.

August also comes to learn about the cruelty of the real world when he runs afoul of the school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar, from A Dog’s Purpose, etc). Even though he does some nasty things, Julian still comes across as a three-dimensional character, and when we meet his mother we come to understand why he behaves in such an uncaring fashion.

The film explores one year in the life of August and the challenges this sweet natured kid faces. The film deals with some universal themes such as adolescent angst, treating people with kindness, tolerance, acceptance, family, friendship, bullying. It’s not what you look like, but what’s inside that is important. This is a powerful message that was recently delivered in the live action version of Beauty And The Beast as well. Wonder will strongly remind audiences of Mask, the darker Peter Bogdanovich directed drama from 1985 that starred Cher, although its prepubescent hero here faces a different set of challenges to Eric Stoltz’s character. Wonder also incorporates elements from other more adult dramas that followed the challenges faced by disfigured characters, such as The Elephant Man. Here the message is delivered with generous doses of humour as well.

Wonder has been directed in sympathetic, sincere and compassionate fashion by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wall Flower, etc), who avoids false sentimentality and many of the usual cliches. Palacio was apparently compelled to write the book following her own embarrassing encounter with a young girl suffering from a similar facial disfiguration at an ice cream parlour. Chbosky has also cowritten the script with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Chbosky has remained faithful to the structure of the source novel, shaping the film as a series of chapters that focus on a number of different characters, who all have their own problems, and the effect that they have on August. In this way we see events from a number of different perspectives that give further insight into August and the challenges he faces. We are heavily invested in his story.

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All of the main characters are well drawn and developed, and Chbosky draws solid performances from his ensemble cast. Tremblay delivered one of the great performances from a child in Room, and he carries this film on his young shoulders. His character here shares a few surface similarities to Room in that he plays a young boy experiencing the harsh realities of the real world for the first time. I thought that Tremblay was unlucky not to have received an Oscar nomination for his work in that film, and now he has backed up that strong performance with another terrific and nicely nuanced performance that shows his resilience and maturity. Although his features are hidden under layers of prosthetic make-up, he brings a sense of humanity, dignity and real dramatic heft to the role.

Roberts brings warmth, compassion and strength to her performance as his mother Isabella and her character runs through a gamut of emotions. Cast against type, the affable Owen Wilson is warm and strong as August’s supportive father Nate. He brings a light touch to his performance and he draws upon his comic sensibilities to help shape a sympathetic character who provides much of the comic relief. Patinkin is excellent and brings intelligence and humanity to his role as Mr Tushman, the school’s principal.

Newcomer Izabela Vidovic (Homefront, etc) is also very good as August’s older sister Viola, who struggles to find her place in the family. Her life has been affected by the way the family put much of their lives on hold to care for August, which has created some tension and developed a rift between her and her mother. She is often left to find her own way through the turbulent teenage years. She joins the school theatrical troupe at the urging of Justin (Nadji Jeter), and the themes of their performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town will also resonate strongly with audiences. Young Jupes is also very good as the conflicted best friend Jack.

A quiet, gentle story full of positive values, Wonder is an uplifting, heartfelt, moving, inspiring, feel-good and crowd-pleasing film suitable for family audiences. Unlike many of the superhero movies in the multiplexes this is a story about human characters and very real issues. It is a manipulative, shameless tear jerker, but in the best way. Bring plenty of tissues.
★★★★

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