MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder
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WONDER-- 5 STARS
Putting the elementary educator hat on, do remember for a moment your parts of speech. Colorful adjectives may be the additions to statements that add attention, but the verb is still the action at the center of every sentence that all other words orbit. It’s amazing when a little change to a verb adds heightened depth to something simple. The central core lesson of R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder, which becomes the hashtag of its film adaptation’s marketing campaign, could not better exemplify the nuances possible from verbs.
LESSON #1: CHOOSE KINDNESS-- The power here is the difference between the verbs “be” and “choose.” In Palacio’s book, the line is “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” No offense to the recent Cinderella, the statement “be kind” feels like a mere suggestion of desired behavior when compared to thinking, reflecting, and acting with making actual choices rooted in kindness. The difference of action is a powerful and purposeful one. Be a bigger person through small acts.
Between that life lesson and many invaluable others, Wonder’s buoyant messages are the moving jolt of empathy this generation needs. Even better, its literal and figurative precepts carry an inspiring weight worthy to last many generations more. Directed by the good hands of fellow award-winning novelist Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder is an instant classic, sure to become a new favorite, for its target audience and a winning (and rare) example of a film taking great care to do justice by the book it is based on.
August “Auggie” Pullman, played by Room breakout star Jacob Tremblay under heavy prosthetics, was born with Treacher Collins syndrome and has endured 27 different surgeries before the age of ten to correct deformities and improve his quality of life. Underneath the grim visage lies a bright Star Wars nut and science-loving kid that is stepping into fifth grade at a real school after being homeschooled by his devoted mother Isabel (Academy Award winner Julia Roberts). Praying for the best, Isabel and her husband Nate (Owen Wilson in perpetual “cool dad” mode) have selected upper Manhattan’s Beecher Prep, headed by Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), as the place for Auggie join and experience a social life with kids his own age.
The looks Auggie receives say it all. Several of his classmates and potential friends, in the form of the “good egg” Jack Will (Noah Jupe of Suburbicon), the preening child actress Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), the empathetic Summer (Millie Davis), and the popular spoiled rich kid Julian (Bryce Gheisar), don’t know what to make of Auggie. Orbiting around our space cadet through the miniature galaxy of classrooms and hallways are his supportive teachers Mr. Browne and Ms. Petosa (original Hamilton cast member and Tony winner Daveed Diggs and Canadian actress Ali Liebert) growing impressed by his academic talents. Nevertheless, the unsheltered and unpredictable path of Auggie’s school journey sways from fitting in and attempting conversations to cruel fear and outright bullying.
LESSON #2: THE WRONGNESS OF BULLYING IN ITS MANY FORMS-- The superficiality of people that vainly judge others on looks is an immortal allegory. Uninformed from sympathy, bluntly honest children can be worse than adults in this department. Bullying is never right and it deserves to be called out and stopped on every occasion. Tear that hate away and be a valuable friend instead of a worthless bully.
True to the 2012 source novel, the film adapted by Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Jack Thorne (A Long Way Down), and Chbosky retains the book’s structure of shifting points of view and narration. It divides its school year-long story into sections titled for specific characters. Each episode overlaps a different perspective on previous scenes and then extends the narrative onward. With this dynamic, Wonder ceases to be a one-kid show and elevates into a wider sample of life and family experiences. Stephen Chbosky handles those folds with brilliance and sensibility.
This is where Via, Auggie’s high school sister played by Chicago-born actress Izabela Vidovic, shines with her own dramatic arc. Via has long been the extremely understanding yet marginalized sibling next to Auggie’s bigger needs. Parallel to her brother’s obstacles, Via is facing her own challenges of trying to find a purpose, having her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) veer to a different crowd, falling for a sweet-hearted theater guy named Justin (Nadji Jeter), and mourning the loss of her confidante grandmother (a perfect Sonia Braga cameo).
One way or another, all culminations and growth lead back to Auggie. Jacob Tremblay displayed Oscar-worthy talent and enormous emotional range two years ago with his miraculous breakout performance in Room. His captivating innocence destroyed hardened hearts then and Jacob does it again now with Wonder. Even under heavy facial prosthetics, Tremblay’s masked smile alone could sell stock for Kleenex. Add in the warming feels from Julia Roberts’ strength, Owen Wilson’s endearing affability, and Vidovic’s bloom and you might as well bring a whole box to the theater.
Cynics will try to snipe at this film’s melodrama and call it cinematic syrup. Let them try. Artificial syrup sure has its litany of unhealthy ingredients, but Wonder is equivalent to the 100% pure stuff. Its sweetness runs through the power of its splendid ensemble performances and richly layered storytelling. Like the first lesson, it all comes down to choices and Wonder gets everything right, from its timely messages and polished tone to its honest and affirming compassion.
LESSON #3: THE DEFINITION OF "WONDER"-- Borrowing from the lede of this website’s review of Wonder Woman, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the noun form of “wonder” as “a cause of astonishment, the quality of excited admiration, or rapt attention at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience.” To observe the little guy that began hiding inside an astronaut’s helmet strive and thrive towards self-confidence and accomplishment checks off each one of the three prongs of that definition. If that's not enough, follow what R.J. Palacio did and listen to Natalie Merchant sing about the word.