Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic
Runtime: 1 hr 54 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 14 December 2017
Synopsis: Based on the New York Times bestseller, WONDER tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman. Born with facial differences that, up until now, have prevented him from going to a mainstream school, Auggie becomes the most unlikely of heroes when he enters the local fifth grade. As his family, his new classmates, and the larger community all struggle to discover their compassion and acceptance, Auggie’s extraordinary journey will unite them all and prove you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.
R.J. Palacio’s New York Times bestselling novel ‘Wonder’ was an exhortation to his readers to be kind through the story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with congenital facial deformities and has endured 27 surgeries to help him see, breathe and hear in the decade since. Auggie’s story begins proper as the 10-year-old boy prepares to attend mainstream school – fifth-grade to be exact – for the first time, a decision that his devoted mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) knows is for his better good in the long run but which understandably still causes her much torment. “Dear god, please make them be nice to him,” she says to his dad Nate (Owen Wilson) as they watch him walk into school for the first time. Which parent hasn’t wrenched waving goodbye on their child’s first day at a new school, even more so when you can almost be sure that he will be gawked, shunned and even ridiculed by his peers?
But ‘Wonder’ isn’t just Auggie’s story; oh no, it is also as much a story of the people around him, including his 15-year-old teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), his best friend at school Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Via’s former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Like the book, the movie uses multiple perspectives to advance the narrative, not so much as a gimmick but rather to underscore the point that you never know what someone else might be going through. In Via’s context, that means appreciating what it feels like to be living in a house where she’s mostly overlooked by a mother and a father busy taking care of a sick child; in Jack Will’s context, that means appreciating just why he would snark to the other kids about Auggie on Halloween day; and in Miranda’s context, that means appreciating why she had given Via the runaround after two weeks of summer camp.
“August is the sun,” Via says of Auggie in voice-over, describing how everyone revolves around him, but the revolving first-person points-of-view illuminates the choices, considerations and consequences of children figuring out just what type of person they want to be. Though not accorded their dedicated narratives, you’ll just as intimately come to feel for Isabel, who had given up her dreams of a PhD to care for her son and is just starting to get her life back. Ditto for the good-humoured Nate, who comfortably plays second-fiddle to Isabel when it comes to dealing with emotional matters in the family, while being supremely supportive of both his children in whatever way possible. Arguably, we don’t get the same depth of perspective about Auggie’s chief nemesis at school, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a rich privileged kid who slowly morphs into a bully, thereby depriving him of a chance to demonstrate his innate goodness as we are led to believe every one of these characters possess.
As unabashedly sentimental as it is, you won’t mind that it openly tugs at your heartstrings, not when it does so with such earnestness, sincerity and good intentions. And so, much as it wants to be inspirational, it doesn’t sugar-coat difficult questions for which there are no easy answers to – so when Auggie asks his mother in despair “Why do I have to be so ugly, is it always going to matter?", she answers in reply “I don’t know”. Neither for that matter does it turn sappy at any point in order to earn our tears; instead, director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky portrays Auggie’s struggles and the struggles of those around him simply and without fuss, maintaining a light touch from start to finish and even inserting some surreal moments involving Auggie’s favourite ‘Star Wars’ character Chewbacca. Its honesty ultimately goes a long way in ensuring that it never succumbs to emotional falseness, remaining rooted in the very real and complex burdens of being a kid and/or a parent.
That it remains a deeply affecting watch even for those who already know where it is going every step of the way is credit to the excellent A-list ensemble which it has assembled. Tremblay nails the lead role of Auggie with aplomb, earning both laughs and tears through beautiful understatement. It is as masterful a performance as his debut in ‘Room’, perhaps even more so considering the facial prosthetics he had to be under. Vidovic gives an equally nuanced performance as the invisible sibling who has to fend for herself, winning our sympathy without ever begging for it. As their parents, the more laid-back Wilson and the more tightly-wound Roberts make a brilliant complementary pair, whose sometimes differing opinions about what’s best for Auggie underscore the depth of their love for the family and therefore bring them closer than further from each other.
It’s not hard to see why ‘Wonder’ had started a craze for the phrase ‘choose kind’ when it was released a few years ago, nor why the book remains one of the biggest hand-sells – not only will it make you laugh, cry, break your heart and then put it back together again, it contains a beautiful moral about who we are on the inside and choosing to be kinder, gentler and nicer to the people who may look different from us but deserve to be treated no differently. And all that is, for the lack of a better word, wondrously preserved here in this excellent adaptation, itself a poignant and heartwarming movie anchored on the same precepts as the book. It is also that rare live-action feel-good movie for the whole family, and one perfectly timed for the holiday season as a reminder that kindness can exist in this fractured world, if only each and every one makes the conscious choice to be kind.
(Wondrously moving, poignant and heartwarming, this story about choosing to be kind is the rare feel-good live-action film that the whole family can enjoy)
Review by Gabriel Chong