Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson kindly deliver in ‘Wonder’
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne based on the novel by R.J. Palacio
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, and Danielle Rose Russell
“Wonder” – Be kind.
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) walks with his parents – Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) - towards Beecher Prep for his first day of middle school, and he is terrified. Sure, middle school can be terrifying for just about any kid. Think back to your years during that preadolescent and adolescent brew of confusion mixed with caste systems of rumors, doubt and Darwinism that distract from the primary tasks at hand: reading, writing and arithmetic.
His future schoolwork does not concern him, but the potentially toxic social concoction does, because Auggie was born with genetic facial deformities. Twenty-seven surgeries have helped normalize his appearance, but he does not look like other 10-year-olds, and this kind and thoughtful little boy demonizes himself because of it. Isabel homeschooled Auggie through fourth grade, but now he is literally taking his first steps on a formal learning institution’s campus, and his mom pleads, “Dear God, please make them be nice to him.”
Co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)) and Tremblay - who is unrecognizable, not unlike Eric Stoltz in “Mask” (1985) – successfully capture Auggie’s emotional 5th grade journey. That’s no surprise, but Chbosky unexpectedly and refreshingly devotes significant screen time with other key characters as well. First and foremost, “Wonder” is Auggie’s spiritual mountain to climb. His challenges also greatly impact others, especially those closest to him, namely his supportive and loving parents and sister, Olivia (Izabela Vidovic) or “Via” for short, and the picture frequently checks in with her often enough to almost call her a co-lead character.
Vidovic’s Via successfully garners admiration and sympathy from the audience, as she deeply cares for her brother but also aches due to less devoted attention from her folks. The film – at least during its first half – is structured in a chapter-format by presenting the names “Auggie” or “Via” on-screen, as introductions to their individual perspectives. This approach gives some reprieve from Auggie’s heavy-handed troubles with close focus on Via’s own problems with isolation and the sudden, unknown brushoff from her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Certainly, Auggie grapples with monumental changes, but Via’s problems are no less real, as the picture thoughtfully embraces her story with sincerity.
Roberts is wonderfully cast, as Isabel convincingly communicates her sincere love for Auggie throughout the picture. In one particular break-your-heart scene (after a difficult day of school), Tremblay and Roberts wholly convey Auggie’s helpless despair and Isabel’s strength to hold it together and not completely sob along with him. Roberts does not normally play an understanding mom on-screen, but she falls into the role effortlessly with grace and sensitivity. Wilson’s Nate is the least developed family member-character. He is easy going dad who must earn at least a quarter of million dollars a year at some unknown big job, but cashes in plenty of time at home to show love and support while also giving Isabel gray hair with occasional glimpses of arrested development. Nate does not hinder the film’s flow, but we don’t learn much about him, as Wilson basically plays the considerate, but semi-out-of-touch Nick Campbell from “The Internship” (2013). Hey, perhaps Nate works at Google?
One does not need to confer with Google to know that an acting-triad of Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson - plus a nice performance from Vidovic - will provide compelling moments of celluloid textile for the audience, but the picture is also anchored by a serviceable script. Surely, “Wonder” carries familiar family and school themes, and it jams too many smaller narratives into one hour and 57 minutes. In fact, the film feels like it reaches its rightful conclusion at the 1h 40m mark, but carries on for another 17 minutes.
While the film’s beats are common, the characters – including key supporting ones, like Principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), a teacher named Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and two school friends – enrich Auggie’s world and ours as well. “Wonder” delivers a compassionate teaching moment that is so important for kids, and during these divisive times, a most worthy reminder for adults.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.