“Wonder” is a delightful new film adapted from the novel of the same name by R. J. Palacio by writer-director Stephen Chbosky. “Wonder” is the story of August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a normal 5th grader in almost every way. Almost.
You see, Auggie was born with a genetic facial deformity and has gone through numerous surgeries, which have left him with facial scarring. He’s been homeschooled by Mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts), but she and Dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), decide it’s time for Auggie to go to a regular school.
Auggie’s homeschooling has put him way ahead of the other 5th graders, especially in Science. He dreams of being in space one day and his favorite toy, an astronaut helmet, doubles as protection against the stares of others. When he’s dropped off on the first day of school, he reluctantly leaves it behind in his Dad’s hands. By the end of the day kids have dubbed him “Barf Hideous” (a distortion of the name of his favorite “Star Wars” character).
As Auggie combats the bullying of his classmates, the other characters of the story get their due as well. Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s older sister loves her brother but she’s had to deal with the lack of parental attention due to their focus on Auggie. Via’s best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), comes back to school with pink highlights in her hair and shuns Via in order to hang out with the cool crowd. Jack Will (Noah Jupe), Auggie’s potential friend, has his own hurdles overcome. Auggie’s Mom, Isabel, has put her own life on hold when Auggie was born and now that he’s in school, she finally gets a chance to work on her abandoned dissertation. All these side characters prove the point that everyone has hard times, no matter what they look like.
Jacob Tremblay breathes life into the character of Auggie with gentleness and humor. In a film that leans toward the jerking of tears, Tremblay gives an even performance that has the right amount of sorrow and angst alongside humor and typical little-boy stuff. Roberts and Wilson play Auggie’s parents with heartfelt authenticity. Even Mandy Patinkin, as the “I’ve heard them all” Mr. Tushman, the principal of Auggie’s school, gives his small role a mix of sternness and compassion.
“Wonder” takes the issue of bullying head-on. It also makes it clear that kids learn hateful behavior from those around them, especially adults. The kid bullying Auggie the most, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), gives Auggie a copy of their class photo, from which Auggie has been “photoshopped” out. Called into Mr. Tushman’s office with his parents, we learn that it was Julian’s mom who did the deed, telling the principal that they couldn’t have guests to their home seeing Auggie together with their precious Julian.
“Wonder” shows just how superficial some differences can be and the wonderful things that can happen between people when we get past those differences to get to know each other for who we really are. A lot of things can set one person apart from others: physical traits, race, language, economic status, whatever. Don’t let those blind you to seeing the true person within.
And remember: always be kind. You never know what someone else is going through.