Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic
Adapted from the novel of the same name, Wonder has generally been sold as the story of Auggie Pullman (Tremblay), a ten-year-old boy with a rare facial deformity, as he starts school and interacts with other kids on a daily basis for the first time. However it’s about more than just Auggie. It incorporates the thoughts and feelings of some of those closest to him as part of the main narrative. Just as Auggie is told by his sister, Via (Vidovic), not everything is about him. Do these tangents support the overall story, or do they hinder?
Tremblay’s Auggie is a character very easy to warm to: he’s smart, confident (when around those he’s comfortable with), funny and incredibly charming. He’s learnt to live with his differences in private, but struggles when in public, often wearing his treasured space helmet to hide his face. His family, consisting of sister Via, mum Isabel (Roberts) and dad Nate (Wilson), are incredibly supportive and understanding, the parents especially, often resulting in Via feeling neglected, a feeling she voices internally and purposely hides. The strength emanating from all characters is uplifting, even in the supporting characters, as all the teachers seem to be very inspirational to the students, though in reality you’d be lucky to find just one per school. However, as heart-warming-yet-heart-wrenching family films go, Wonder is not quite up there with the likes of Marley and Me and My Girl. Despite a magnificent performance from the remarkably talented Jacob Tremblay, there is still a lot to be desired.
The perseverance of the Pullman family is admirable, as is their positivity, but it’s not long before it starts to feel unrealistic – it doesn’t feel like we ever truly get to understand the hardship of the struggles they would all be going through were this grounded a little more in reality. The family resides in a beautiful townhouse in New York and Auggie attends a preparatory school, filled with trust fund kids and scholarship-winners. Isabel had been home-schooling Auggie all his life and dreams of completing her thesis. Nate assumedly has a high-flying job, a job we are never privy to, in order to fund such a lifestyle as theirs (throughout the film he is wearing suits, as though he never leaves the office). Via is unusually outwardly understanding for a teenager that lacks parental attention. There is a real disconnect with reality throughout; certain points in the film that do tug at the heartstrings are mainly events that leave the audience feeling that the family are getting through their experiences almost without resistance. There is little room for feeling sorrowful or empathetic. Perhaps it’s cynical to say, and perhaps it’s heartless to wish them more trials and tribulations, but there is such a thing as too much happiness, too many strokes of luck, even in a fictional environment. A little more strife and pathos would have been beneficial and would have made the ending much stronger. After all, what doesn’t kill you…
Other than Tremblay, the main cast are generally suited to their roles: Roberts as the caring, emotional but not out-of-the-ordinary matriarch; Wilson being Marley-and-Me-style dad-Wilson, the only type of Wilson worth watching; and Vidovic as the quietly resentful and thoughtful sister. As for the supporting cast, the child performers come across as wooden in their performances. Conceding that they are just kids, they may not have the experience behind them to give performances with emotional depth. But in a world of Dafne Keens, Tremblays and the likes of the Stranger Things foursome, there isn’t much room for excuses. As basic plot devices they provide obstacles or movement for Auggie in his emotional life, however it felt difficult to connect to them, bar perhaps one: Jack Will (Noah Jupe), one of the characters that gets close enough to Auggie for us to glimpse into his personal journey in getting to know Auggie. Whilst still an imperfect performance, Jupe shows a lot of promise. A little more instruction, a few more acting lessons and he could be one to watch out for in the future.
The story itself too is imperfect. As the film progresses we realise we are being shown a year in the life of Auggie, his family and his friends. Before this realisation the story is particularly jumpy, going from one struggle to the next with each one being neatly resolved either immediately or sometime later. It moves along at its own pace, events coming and going as writers Chbosky, Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne saw fit when adapting the screenplay. It could be argued that this mirrors reality: not everything happens in a straight-forward manner. However toward the end there were no real emotional turnarounds, bar one that felt like it was put in because it may have been felt that that character should feel guilt and find redemption at the very last second rather than remaining a villain of sorts, which may have worked better. Maybe the novel has more to offer in the way of emotional payoff, because the film, though not unemotional, lacks in the in that department.
Ultimately this film should be a great lesson for all ages in how to treat those who are different from you, how to learn from them and how to better oneself, and it does come across that way if the mind of the viewer is open to understanding that, however the absence of any real adversity from anyone but Auggie hinders the story and leaves it feeling weak. As an audience we are drawn to Auggie, we feel for him, but struggle to really feel for anyone else. The rest of his family could have done with being fleshed out more as characters. The diversions from Auggie’s story to that of others provided a great opportunity for such a thing, but they all felt two-dimensional, each character not really facing much in the way of personal misfortune. Auggie’s story is a rare one, and because of that the stories of those around him should have been more relatable. A little more on the family and friends and a little less on Auggie would have given that emotional payoff the film should have had.