It occurs to me that a film like Wonder is one of the most difficult type of films to make. Crappy comedies and action films can succeed because of explosions and people who are amused by semen jokes, but family dramas, especially about sick or disabled children, usually are sunk by sentimentality, and end up in the old “Afterschool Special” category.
So I have to give props to director Stephen Chbosky and his co-writers, Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, for making a family film that actually appeals to everyone in the family. I went with an adult and two teenagers, and we all enjoyed it.
I was eager to see Wonder because not only have I read the book, I taught it (it is a popular choice in fifth and sixth grade classrooms–perhaps that is one reason why it has overperformed at the box office). It is the story of a little boy with facial deformities who is leaving the cocoon of homeschooling and venturing into the dark jungle of public school. Middle school is difficult for any child, let alone one who has frightened other children with his face.
The film is structured around his first year in school, fifth grade. His parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) figure it’s time, but Augie (played by Jacob Tremblay) is reluctant. He wears his omnipresent space helmet on his first day, but does take it off. He is tolerated, if not befriended, by most, except for an Eddie Haskell-type named Julian. But he does end up making a couple of friends, notably Jack Will, who realizes he isn’t liking him out of pity–Augie is really a funny and interesting fellow.
The film, like the book, uses multiple points of view. We also get the perspective of Augie’s older sister (Izabela Vidovic). Take a look at the poster and you’ll see her problem–she’s been pushed almost out of the picture. She says that Augie is the sun, and everyone else in the family revolves around him, but she loves him and puts up with it. But she’s dealing with her own problems, such as the sudden coldness of her old friend, and a budding romance with a theater geek (a production of Our Town will figure in all this).
Wonder is remarkably faithful to the book, but there is one problem–in the book, we never truly know what Augie looks like. He says it’s worse than you can imagine. Later, we get the technical term mandibulofacial dysostosis,which isn’t going to help much unless you Google it. So all through the book, we imagine what Augie looks like. In the film, there is little attempt to hide it. We know what he looks like in the first few minutes, and it’s not as horrifying as I imagined reading the book. Of course, he’s had twenty-seven surgeries, leaving scars on his face, his eyes pulled downward, and ears that are like rosettes. It’s enough to get you ostracized, but I don’t think it would scare small children.
The performances are all excellent. Julia Roberts actually sets aside her star power. We do get one of her trademark laughs, but otherwise there is not much flash and it’s good to see her play something other than herself. Owen Wilson plays a cool dad (we never find out what he does, but he gets to wear suits with sneakers). Tremblay, who follows his great work in Room, turns out not to be a one-film wonder. Despite the disruption that Augie creates, one might actually want to be in this family.
Wonder has a simple message: be kind. I can’t think of a lot of movies that carry that message (I say it to students leaving my room). It’s a well made film, and I’m glad it’s making a lot of money, and I hope it gets people to read the book.