A Wonder of an old-fashioned sob fest
WONDER (PG, 113 MINS) DIRECTED BY STEPHEN CHBOSKY
In some mythical ‘burb of New York City, where the streets are wide, quiet, trash-free and treelined, there lives a boy called Auggie Pullman.
And Auggie was born with a vanishingly rare cranio/facial deformation. Twenty-seven surgeries and 10 years later, Auggie can at least see, hear and breathe, and his intellect is unimpaired. But Auggie’s face remains a mismatched collection of disparate parts and postsurgical scars. ‘‘Were you in a car crash?’ asks one of Auggie’s new classmates, on his first day of fifth grade. It gets worse.
Auggie has been home schooled until now, but he is determined, despite his parent’s uncertainty, to make a go of school and to fit in to the outside world. No matter how venal, cruel and predatory that world might be.
Wonder is an adaptation – and a pretty faithful one – of the bestselling 2012 novel by R J Palacio (Raquel Jaramillo). The book follows Auggie, his family and a few of his classmates as they navigate one momentous year in the life of a boy facing far more than just the usual childhood trials and insecurities.
Auggie (or August, to give him his full, seldom used name) is played by Jacob Tremblay (Room). Tremblay was only 10 years old himself when Wonder was filmed. But he is already something of a screen veteran, with a six-year and 10-film career behind him. Some of the best adult actors around would struggle to convey the range and depth of emotion that Tremblay brings to life here, especially through the layers of prosthetic putty and make-up he wears. But Tremblay is astonishingly effective in realising a script that avoids the saccharine even while mining Auggie’s plight.
Director Stephen Chbosky has the thunderously good The Perks of Being a Wallflower on his CV. He brings to Wonder enough of the trenchancy he showed there to dodge most of the pitfalls of sentiment this film often seems to be careering inevitably towards.
Around Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic (Homefront) finds some strong moments as Auggie’s older sister, uncomplainingly living in a family she knows must orbit her brother, but still needing some respect and attention herself. Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) and the great Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride) round out the adult support roles as Auggie’s English teacher and school principal. But it’s Julia Roberts’ and Owen Wilson’s names on the poster that will be keeping the ticket sellers busy. Cast, pleasingly, as Auggie’s parents, Roberts and Wilson radiate warmth, intelligence and compassion as a couple of almost too-good-to-true suburbanites.
Was anyone ever really raised by a couple like this? Are these people – so kind, empathetic, sensitive, funny and smart – even possible? Isabel and Nate Pullman are a fantasy of prosperous liberalism that surely only exists in the imagination of writers and film-makers. And yet, Roberts and Wilson brought these people convincingly enough to life to cut my cynicism off at the pass. Late in the piece, as Roberts turns to Auggie – in tears, naturally – and says to him ‘‘you really are a wonder’’ it’s tempting to believe she is not just reciting the words in the script but also paying tribute to Tremblay’s performance, and to everything and everyone else who is making this unlikely enterprise hold together.
Wonder is the very definition of a disease-of-the-week weepie. But it is put together and performed with enough conviction, craft, restraint and intelligence to get it over the line in style.
It’s an old-fashioned threehankie sob fest with sassy kids, catchy songs, kind adults and a cute dog. What’s not to like? – Graeme Tuckett
Both Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay are quite brilliant in Wonder.