WONDER (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG
(for thematic elements including bulling, and some mild language)
Released: November 17, 2017
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Stephen Chobsky
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Owen Wilson, Daveed Diggs, Nadji Jeter, Millie Davis, Mandy Patinkin

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In the best way, Wonder will wreck every mother I know.

I’m a single guy with no kids and I couldn’t keep it together. Tissues are most certainly required for this movie that often overwhelms but earns every moment. Playing strongly to every kid’s deepest anxieties and the rawest of maternal impulses, Wonder is an inspirational gift that will leave eyes sobbing and hearts bursting.

Based on the beloved YA novel phenomenon by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is the story of Auggie Pullman, a boy born with facial deformities who, upon entering the fifth grade, will be attending an actual school for the first time.

Previously home schooled, Auggie’s parents believe it’s time for him to take that necessary step into the real world. Auggie, however, is still afraid to leave the house without his favorite astronaut helmet to hide under.

Striking emotional chords almost from the jump (the birth flashback is the first trigger), this unashamedly yet sincerely wrought heart-tugger quickly transcends its “after school special” premise and “family film” genre.

It may follow a familiar template, and at times portray the ideal instead of the real, but Wonder never hits a false note. It’s refreshing to see a movie that shows things not simply as they are but as they should be, and be credible doing both.

Performed with conviction by a stellar cast, Wonder is a parable primarily about special needs children, but its depiction of bullying also parallels any kid who’s felt, or feels, marginalized. It’s a tough tale told with care and humor, and those tender respites help us to process the story’s most traumatic turns, not undercut them.

With a deft, intuitive empathy, director Stephen Chobsky authenticates what would’ve been, in less perceptive hands, a desperate and cheap melodrama. In a beautiful irony, Chobsky creates a safe space to tell a story about the necessity of not staying in one.

He and Palacio do this, in part, by giving insight to various perspectives, not just Auggie’s. Specific chapters show us these vantage points, like how Auggie’s older sister is affected by her brother’s challenges.

We also see the point of view of potential new friends, of the struggle to be generous and inclusive when it’s hard enough as a “normal” kid to deal with peer pressure and fit in on your own.

Wonder considers all sides, then it challenges all sides. Nobody gets a pass, but everybody’s given grace. In the end, courage must be summoned – individually and communally – to face what is wrong and to do what is right.

Wonder is the kind of movie that parents will love because it’s exactly the kind they want to watch, share, and experience with their children. It affirms the values every parent wants to instill, and through an appropriately sentimental story that resonates.

Yes, the script is peppered with well-timed slogans and encouraging aphorisms, but that’s okay. That’s as it should be. The film is so effectively rendered (often powerfully so) that children will benefit from these articulated adages. They serve as guideposts to help kids make sense of how they should respond to what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking.

When given the chance to be right or be kind, choose kind.” That’s not cheesy sentiment. It’s a nutshelled truth that gives direction on how someone can live out these important values. It helps a child turn this emotional experience into a practical one.

These axioms also ring true because the actors deliver them from a vulnerable place, not as if they’re imparting wisdom. This cast does not pander to our heartstrings. As Auggie, Jacob Tremblay – a revelation at age 6 in the Oscar-winning Room – does not merely cry or agonize. He’s burdened with a weight, a shame, a fear. It’s not his feelings that are hurt, it’s his soul. He also displays a range of wit that is clever and genuine, not precocious.

Julia Roberts responds in kind as a mom who stays strong even while living on the unstable edge of a parenting roller coaster. It’s one of her best, most personally felt performances in years, if not decades. Every mom will identify.

Izabela Vidovic and Noah Jupe (the recent Suburbicon) are also strong in key roles as, respectively, Auggie’s sister Via and his new best friend Jack. Their nuanced, earnest turns are welcome, particularly in light of the remaining kid ensemble that is limited to the heightened affectations of Disney Channel tween-coms, although Millie Davis’s Summer is also a standout. Owen Wilson hits the right notes as the comic relief dad, with sincerity, as do Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs (Tony winner for Hamilton) in their roles as principal and teacher.

Some family movies are merely safe entertainments. Others work too hard to teach a lesson. Wonder hits the sweet spot of both. That combination is a rare virtue, and it’s what helps this special movie live up to its name.

To learn more about the #ChooseKind movement, or access teaching resources related to the book and movie, click on the links below.

Choose Kind Tumblr
Choose Kind Teaching Resources

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