It is not an easy task to create a film about young people that is funny and imaginative while also doing justice to the deep and complicated emotions around making and keeping friends and navigating family dynamics. Wonder delivers on all these elements while also featuring a touching, but not overly-simplified story about overcoming physical difference.
Based on the bestselling novel, Wonder is the story of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a boy with a genetic condition resulting in facial differences, and his journey into fifth grade–his first time in a “real school.” As Auggie transitions to school and learns to navigate bullies and friendships, his parents (Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts) and sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) worry about his adaptation along with their own problems, including Via’s grief over her grandmother’s death and confusion when her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) drops out of her life.
In the book, Wonder passes the narration between different characters, which is an effective way of capturing the impact the story has on different people, as well as how conflicts unfold from differing perspectives. The film adaptation does a passable job of using this narrative structure but not relying on it for the whole movie. The switches are used when a different perspective is needed, but then the narration drops out. The result is that the main perspective is Auggie’s, because the narration goes back to his voice without the title cards used for other characters. Ultimately, the lack of transitions is a little sloppy, but the movie doesn’t fall into excessive narration or titling.
The adaptation cuts out some of the parts of the book that generated more conflict and I think the story suffers a bit as a result. For example, one of the challenges Auggie faces in the novel is the need to start wearing hearing aids part way through the year. That layer of the story is important to understanding how his experience of the world is affected beyond how he looks.
The film also minimizes the character of Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and the role of his lessons in the book. I would have liked to have seen more of that character, especially given how talented Diggs is.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the nuances of friendship. The budding friendships between Auggie, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), and Summer (Millie Davis) are a joy to watch, and the resulting tension with the cool bully, Julian (Bryce Gheisar) dramatizes reactions to difference and the negative role parents can play. The young actors are really wonderful and have great chemistry as an ensemble. Jacob Tremblay is talented enough to carry whole movies (such as Room), but he has surprisingly good scene partners in Jupe and Davis who deliver a lot of nuance and depth in their performances. Via’s confusion and sadness over the loss of a friendship and her struggle with finding space in her family’s life add more depth to the story and Izabela Vidovic gives a fantastic performance. Props to Elle McKinnon as Charlotte, who has so much stage presence she practically shines in a really funny way. Also, Mandy Patinkin brings his special brand of tender authority to Mr. Tushman, the principal.
Finally, I appreciate the focus that the parents’ individual ambitions and marriage gets in moments. The film does a good job depicting a complex family life and Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts anchor that dynamic beautifully.
Wonder is uplifting and moving without being overly sweet. It delves into the complicated nature of friendship, family and self-worth with whimsy and humor while still being nuanced. I rate it 4 of 5 stars.
Wonder was directed and written by Stephen Chbosky, based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It runs 1 he 53 minutes and is Rated PG.
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