An overall faithful adaptation of RJ Palacio’s poignant novel, Wonder is a lovely and heart-warming family film whose powerful message to embrace kindness and tolerance couldn’t be more fitting nowadays.
There are two kinds of approach to watching a film like this and I’m not just talking about the dichotomy between hard-core fans of the book it’s based on and people who maybe don’t even know this is an adaptation. The greatest split is probably between cynical viewers who will cringe at the slightest hint of saccharine-infused storytelling and those who will embrace this story’s beautiful message with open arms and “choose kind”.
This is the story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a ten-year-old boy born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a condition that entails heavy facial disfigurements. Since coming into the world, Auggie has had to endure countless surgeries and as a result he has grown up home-schooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts).
In order to cater to Auggie’s needs Isabel has put both her MA degree and her career as a kids’ books illustrator on hold. But the little boy is now at an age that requires a proper education and that’s why Isabel and her husband Nate (Owen Wilson), albeit reluctantly, have enrolled Auggie at Beecher Prep, a private institution where he can start his first year of middle school with every other kid his age. Needless to say, the prospect is terrifying for everyone in the family, including Auggie’s older sister Olivia-Via (Izabela Vidovic) who’s starting high school but as usual, her issues and challenges fall into the background since her brother’s delicate situation always polarizes their parents’ attention.
The filmmakers choose to remain faithful to the novel’s structure where each chapter furthers the narrative by telling the story through the eyes of a different character – although the execution feels uneven as we shift from one character to another. It all starts off with Auggie, who is invited to a special tour of the school before the academic year begins. Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), Beecher Prep’s Principal, has gathered three of the boy’s soon to be classmates who already attended the school in the previous grades to be his welcoming committee. It’s a way to break the ice and make things less traumatic for Auggie on his first day.
However – as brutally put by the boy’s father in a private conversation with his wife that Auggie eavesdrops on – nothing can prepare their son for what’s practically going to be “sending a lamb to the slaughter”. In fact, the three kids recruited to ease Auggie into the new environment, Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and Jack Will (Noah Jupe), won’t exactly be the champions Mr. Tushman had envisioned, though we’d rather not delve further into the characters’ dynamics to avoid any spoilers.
To quote one of the book’s most iconic lines, “there are two sides to every story”, and that’s probably the most laudable aspect of RJ Palacio’s narrative that has transitioned to its screen adaptation. Sure, this is Auggie’s story and his struggle with the inevitable bullying coming his way is front and centre but Wonder is also the story of the people who gravitate in Auggie’s world and their own struggles. Our protagonist’s challenge is an extremely arduous one and no one else can truly understand it unless affected by the same condition. Yet, at the core, all these characters share the same basic need for self-acceptance and empathy towards others.
Writer/director Stephen Chbosky, mostly known for the screen adaptation of his own best-selling novel The Perks Of Being A Wallflower in 2013, does a diligent work at translating Wonder for the screen, although he doesn’t fully capture the same magic he concocted with Perks. That’s not so surprising, as adapting your own book is something deeply personal plus Perks was a teenage coming of age tale with adult themes.
It’s perplexing though how back then Chbosky had managed to keep an extremely emotional journey unsentimental on the screen whilst this time around he seems to have given in to certain manipulative pitfalls of mainstream Hollywood movie-making. Surely being credited alongside two other screenwriters (Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne) is something that usually doesn’t bid well for studio films. It just feels like Wonder doesn’t take advantage of the novel’s most dramatic moments, toning down the conflict, despite having a cast that’s more than capable to deliver on the story’s multi-layered narrative.
The performances indeed keep the film grounded. Jacob Tremblay confirms the potential displayed in Room – in spite of acting under heavy prosthetics, he captures Auggie’s internal journey without ever sliding into gimmick. The rest of the young cast is also in tune to deliver the complex psycho-emotional state of that delicate age, especially as confronted with the situation at hand. And of course, the adult cast is always a pleasure to spend time with, from Mandy Patinkin to Owen Wilson, they all keep things rather understated with the level of talent brought by their experience. If anything, we wonder why we don’t see more of the fabulous Julia Roberts on the big screen these days – she lights up every scene she’s in with the least amount of effort.
Despite coming across as a bit stiff and emotionally calculated at times (the score is the most evident example), Wonder flies through its couple of hours running time, proving to be a thoroughly entertaining ride for adults and children alike and offering a much-needed bump of optimism these days. However, we encourage those viewers who haven’t read the novel beforehand to do so afterwards, because such different mediums make for two unique experiences and there’s a magic in RJ Palacio’s words that are hard to translate visually and deserve your utmost attention.
Wonder is out in UK cinemas.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia