Sometimes you’re simply powerless to resist being emotionally manipulated by truly good film about compassion, populated by kind characters who want nothing more than to put a little kindness out into the world. When you watch and write about films for a living, you can develop a cynical shell around yourself to keep from letting these kind of films get to you. And when the work is overly sentimental or ham-handed with the way it plays with emotions, it’s easy to roll your eyes and move on to the next movie.
But in the hands of a skilled writer and filmmaker like Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who has a clear gift for telling sometimes painfully believable stories about young people, you don’t really have a choice but to give your heart and head over to him.
Based on the wildly popular novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is the story of young August “Auggie” Pullman (another exceptional performance by Room star Jacob Tremblay), who is born with severe facial deformities that have only been partially corrected by a decade’s worth of plastic surgeries. After years of being home schooled, Auggie is about to go to the local public school for the first time, and he and parents Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts) are terrified. Auggie has taken to wearing a space helmet every time he goes outside, but he knows he can’t wear it to school as he begins fifth grade. One of the reasons the film works is that it fully acknowledges that kids can be true assholes to anyone that doesn’t look or act like them. But slowly over the course of his first few weeks, Auggie does make friends, beginning with fellow Star Wars fan Jack Will (Noah Jupe).
With a deceptively simple screenplay by Chbosky, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, Wonder isn’t just about Auggie’s problem; it’s about how living in a household with a child like Auggie can often mean that the needs of other family members go unattended, especially in the case of older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic in a nicely understated performance), who effectively is asked to raise herself while her parents tend to Auggie’s medical schedule and resulting sensitivities. Via rarely complains, but her pain is evident, and she even acts out occasionally just to see if Nate and Isabel even notice. There’s a moving secondary story about how Via and her until-recently best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) drifted apart over the course of a summer. The way that subplot resolves itself is so beautifully organic that you almost don’t see it happening. And the importance of Miranda’s role in Auggie’s life is a bonus surprise.
In addition, Wonder also takes time to acknowledge the role that teachers and school administrators play in helping indoctrinate children like Auggie into the day-to-day goings on of the school. Mandy Patinkin plays school administrator Mr. Tushman, while Daveed Diggs (in his first film role since leaving the cast of “Hamilton,” for which he won a Tony Award) plays Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, who begins each class asking the students to contemplate thought-provoking questions about what kind of person they want to be, and how they can best put positive feelings out into the world.
Chbosky and company lay it on pretty thick at times, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t care a great deal about Auggie’s fate and how/if he would eventually be accepted at his school, even by the resident bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Using lessons he’s been taught by his sister and others who care about him, Auggie gradually meets the outside world halfway, understanding that people are always going to stare at him, while also insisting that people broaden their definition of normal. It may not make you cry (but it likely will), but Wonder is going to move you profoundly. And if it doesn’t, I feel sorry for you.