Often, films that put a spotlight on physical differences tend to focus only on the character with the issue.
Wonder, based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio, starts out that way. Ten-year-old Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in facial deformities. Fearing what other kids might say about the way he looks, the home-schooled Auggie has been putting off enrolling into a public school.
With some coaxing from his mum Isabel (Julia Roberts), Auggie finally makes his way to Beecher Prep Middle School. And as expected, the other kids don’t take to Auggie’s appearance well.
There’s a scene where he runs home and slams the door after a particularly difficult day at school. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Auggie later asks his mum: “Is it (one’s appearance) always going to matter?”
She replies: “We all have marks on our face. I have this wrinkle here from your first surgery. I have these wrinkles here from your last surgery. This is the map that shows us where we’ve been (pointing to her face). And it’s never ugly.”
It is a powerful moment as it sparks an important conversation all parents should have with their kids before they venture into a world so obsessed with physical appearance.
The film is also realistic about the difficulties Auggie face, which keeps it from becoming one of those corny Hallmark Channel TV movies.
Those words of encouragement from Isabel brought comfort to Auggie for a while but things don’t magically become easy after that. Auggie has to fight off the negativity on a daily basis.
Before you get the idea that this show is a two-hour cry-fest, Wonder’s tone is generally quite light-hearted. Auggie is incredibly smart and witty so his exchanges with his classmates (both friends and foes) are packed with hilarious zingers.
Auggie’s father Nate, played by Owen Wilson, also provides some comic relief (although the character suffers from an underdeveloped storyline).
What I love best about Wonder is the fact that it isn’t just about Auggie’s struggles. His story is no doubt a crucial story to tell but it is not more important than the story of other people’s lives.
A substantial portion of the film is dedicated to exploring the pain his teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) feels, being sidelined by her parents who devote their time and effort in caring for Auggie.
The film doesn’t just orbit around Auggie’s life but extends its storyline even further to include a tiff Via has with her best friend Miranda and the start of a little somethin’ somethin’ with drama student Justin.
All these don’t feel like a subplot or a by-the-way addition to the film, rather, an intentional effort to tell a broader story.
The success of an emotional drama hinges mostly on its actors, and in the case of Wonder which comprises mostly kids, on child actors. And these young stars know what they’re doing.
Tremblay, who wowed audiences two years ago in the Oscar Best Picture nominee Room, does most of the heavy lifting as Auggie and gives a moving performance yet again. The 11-year-old actor conveys Auggie’s pain so vividly it will break every parent’s heart.
Ultimately, Wonder is a film for both children and adults, offering a vital lesson about physical appearances: The way we look is inevitably a part of who we are, but it does not define us.
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Mandy Patinkin, Danielle Rose Russell