By Liam Lacey
The sugar count runs precariously high in Wonder, an inspirational family movie which stars Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as parents of a plucky 10-year-old son with a severe facial disfiguration. Thanks to its overall emotional sincerity and a quirky structure, Wonder is saved from becoming unbearably twee.
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay of the 2012’s Room) has been being home-schooled until the fifth grade. We follow him over the course of his first year at a real school with kids his age. The movie, which is directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky (who previously adapted the big screen version of his young adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is set in a wealthy Upper West Side Manhattan, which even in winter appears drenched in honeyed light, in keeping with the movie’s upbeat tone.
Tremblay, working under a prosthetic face that has the appearance of melted wax, conveys Auggie’s moods through his posture and extensive use of chipper voiceover (“My birth was hilarious!”). There are also various magical interludes — including Auggie’s fantasies of flying through space or having Star Wars’ Chewbacca appear as a big friend — to establish the boy’s general adorableness.
Though he got a bad break in the genetic lottery, Auggie is privileged by every other measure. He’s academically gifted. His brave mom and fun-guy dad are indulgently supportive and live in a New York brownstone so spacious, you imagine only movie stars as rich as Roberts and Wilson could actually afford it.
Auggie’s teenaged sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), despite some mild sibling resentment, dotes on her brother. The school that he goes to is a private academy, run by a teddy bear of a principal, Dr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) with an enlightened, dedicated staff, including Auggie’s home-room teacher, a former Wall Street player following his real dreams of primary school teaching.
In contrast to Peter Bogdanovich’s gritty 1985 film, Mask, about another kid with a cranio-facial disorder, the only challenge in Auggie’s life is finding acceptance for his appearance. While most of the kids in Augie’s class are pleasant, one meanie named Julian (Bryce Gheisar) makes it his mission to pick on Auggie with cruel notes and insults. (He’s so bad he even wears a black leather jacket). Somewhat on the fence is another boy, Jack (Noah Jupe), who likes Augie but doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of the popularity divide.
Adapted from R. J. Palacio’s 2012 best-selling children’s novel, Wonder is divided into chapters focusing on different characters within Auggie’s sunny orbit, and although the stories explore the characters’ pain, they are somewhat hampered by plausibility issues. Older sister Via, who has fallen into the exemplary child role, doing her homework in hospital waiting rooms, gets little attention for beginning high school.
She rebels by secretly joins the drama club although, since she’s attending a high school for the performing arts, I don’t know what her parents expected. Another story line is given to underprivileged outsider Jack who, despite his scholarship brains, needs Auggie’s help to get him through science class.
Then there’s Via’s estranged best friend Miranda (a very good Danielle Rose Russell), who has added a candy pink streak to her blonde locks over the summer vacation in protest against her parents’ separation and mom’s drinking. Envious of Via’s life, including her relationship with her adorable little brother, Miranda quickly repents of her rebellious ways and reaches the same conclusion as every other character in the story: It’s nice to be nice, dammit, and this movie isn’t afraid to say so.
Wonder. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky. Starring Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Opens wide November 17.