Stephen Chbosky’s ‘Wonder’ lift hearts, breaks conventions, and shatters expectations

 By Douglas Davidson

November 18, 2017

Right now, it feels like the world is falling apart and any reminder of the little joys, the little victories are a boon. That is the gift of Wonder, the Stephen Chbosky-directed adaptation of the R.J. Palacio novel. Performing a perfectly executed tightrope walk across the line between schmaltz and heartfelt honesty, Wonder is exactly what we need right now. A feel-good film that doesn’t shout down our better angels, but raises them up and exalts them.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is about to start fifth grade at Beecher Prep School and it’s a really big deal. He’s been home-schooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) all his life because he was born with a genetic condition that required him to undergo twenty-seven surgeries to breathe, see, and hear. While Auggie is as bright and imaginative as any ten-year-old, his procedures make him look different from most kids and feel like an outcast. But with the support from his father Nate (Owen Wilson), loving sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), and supportive school staff in the form of home room teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and Principle Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), Auggie not only makes it through his first year at school, but inspires others to embrace their uniqueness.

Jacob Tremblay as August “Auggie” Pullman and Julia Roberts as Isabel Pullman. Courtesy of Lionsgate

Given his previous work in adapting his own story of being a social outcast in high school in the 2012 drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer-turned-director Chbosky is the perfect asset to bring the Palacio novel of an outcast child’s imperfect life to the silver screen. Wallflower spoke to the personal trauma of adolescence as it relates to growing up, finding yourself, and facing your bullies; and Wonder tells a similar story, yet with a much more positive view.

The focus here is on individuals as real people, not as archetypes. Achieving this in Wonder means breaking the conventions of family dramas and shaking up the expected narrative. Chbosky accomplishes this by conforming Palacio’s consistently alternating POV throughout the novel into larger narrative chunks for the film, enabling the story to continue along the same timeline – that of a single school year – while looking at events from the perspectives of Auggie, Via, and their respective friends Jack (Noah Jupe) and Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Nothing we experience is from the POV of the adults; instead, the attention is primarily focused on the kids central to the story. This results in an increased sense of honesty about the relationships between the siblings, Auggie and Via, not only in the way they view themselves in relation to others, but also how their closest friends view them. Instead of becoming icons of childhood, they’re just people doing the best they can.

Jacob Tremblay as August “Auggie” Pullman and Noah Jupe as Jack Will (Auggie’s best friend). Courtesy of Lionsgate

Making Auggie’s journey the center of the story and not Auggie himself, Wonder opens up the narrative to explore the connections we form with the ones we love, frequently in unexpected ways. For Auggie, it’s a journey of self-acceptance, not of self-realization. For Via, it’s about finding her place in the world outside of her brother. Both are confident within the walls of their home, yet the struggle is in trying to define themselves in the outside world. But their journey isn’t theirs alone. Though the parents are largely separated from sharing in Auggie and Via’s journey, their friends Jack and Miranda are not. The film’s technique mirrors real life, where our lives are colored by those around us. It’s a change in convention that’s refreshing as it encouraging.

With a foundation built on direction that superbly fits the light, aspirational nature of the story and a tight, engaging screenplay by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Throne, Wonder is the rare film featuring not a single dishonest performance. Tremblay blew audiences away with The Room and his performance here is just as impressive in his portrayal of Auggie, a kid whose patience and endurance make him a beacon of kindness for his classmates. Vidovic is delightful as his sister, balancing the painful emotional rawness that comes from believing your only caregiver is yourself. Jupe and Russell possess the difficult jobs of being the foils/friends to Auggie and Via, yet the clever breaking of narrative convention allows them to maintain their own personal identity and story arcs. The icing on the cake of Wonder is the fantastic support by the grownups: Roberts, Wilson, Diggs, and Patinkin. However brief, the adults roles retain their significance, never once succumbing to after-school special performances.

Julia Roberts as Isabel Pullman and Owen Wilson as Nate Pullman. Courtesy of Lionsgate

Wonder is a complete surprise and a near-perfect family film that can incite real discussions about what truly matters. It succeeds because it doesn’t lecture; rather, it presents a family in transition from major life moment to another. Though it gets more heavy-handed as the story progress, leaning perhaps too heavily on moments and music cues to convey emotional meaning, it is hopeful, loving, and honest, and the exact film audiences need right now. With the world becoming an increasingly scary place, Wonder reminds us that for all our struggles and differences, it’s easy to “choose kind.”

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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