Break out the tissues, because director Stephen Chbosky’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) new film is determined to tug on the heartstrings as much as possible. Wonder is the film adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name about a young boy, August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a severe facial deformity. After being home-schooled by his mother most of his early years, Auggie is now starting fifth grade at a normal school and will have to deal with the reactions from students and staff as he tries to fit in.
There’s a lot of emotional content jammed into a two-hour runtime with this film, and Wonder pulls out just about every trick in the book to get the tears flowing. Room star Jacob Tremblay manages the astonishing task of delivering a sensitive and powerfully expressive performance underneath make-up designer Arjen Tuiten’s full facial prosthetics, difficult enough for adult actors let alone an eleven year old. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts deliver the best performances I’ve seen from either in years as Auggie’s parents, with Roberts heartbreakingly vulnerable and Wilson much funnier as a regular embarrassing Dad than any of his recent comedic protagonists. I got the sense that the supporting cast of child actors couldn’t always sell the sentiment of their scenes but this inexperience was strangely endearing, as they always feel like real kids behaving naturally. Meanwhile Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs are welcome sources of wise words and support as the school’s principal and teacher.
Rather than just being Auggie’s story, the screenplay also gives side characters such as Auggie’s sister or fellow classmates their own moments of narration and perspective. It’s a nice little twist to what could have been a fairly one-sided story of the ‘inspirationally disadvantaged’ little boy, and supports the film’s overall message of looking at situations from another’s point of view. With such a clear family-friendly moral and an abundance of sentimental moments, Wonder borders on being an overly saccharine at times but is kept from being nauseating by Chbosky’s fun and imaginative direction. Unexpected Star Wars cameos and emotional conversations told within the game Minecraft capture a childhood sense of play and, yes, wonder in moments that could have felt like overdone emotional beats. Don Burgess cinematography is simple but lends a storybook feel to even the most emotional scenes, bringing in much needed brightness and warmth.
I did feel that Wonder was somewhat determined to get one last tear out of its audience towards the end, with about four different endings as things wrap up nicely for each character, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get one from me.