“If you need to send a message, call Western Union!” the mogul Sam Goldwyn is meant to have declared, which hasn’t stopped Hollywood finding a million ways to teach us lessons then and since. Wonder was a children’s novel – a widely-read, unashamedly messagey heartbreaker by RJ Palacio – and to approach it as grown-up cinema wouldn’t help anyone.
The only way forward is to abandon cynicism at the door: that’s what the director Stephen Chbosky has done, in movie-izing this story about physical deformity and the playground as a last refuge for knee-jerk cruelty.
The main character is Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old born with a rare genetic condition that makes him look different – not Elephant Man different, or as gigantically so as Eric Stoltz’s character in the 1985 weepie Mask, but different enough. Until the point when the film begins, he’s been entirely home-schooled by his parents (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts), and seeks refuge from staring eyes within an astronaut’s helmet.
“Please let them be nice to him!”, we hear Roberts pray as she releases her son on his first day in middle school, and Wilson gingerly takes the helmet away. Of course, being children, his classmates can’t help but stare and recoil, at least at first. The story is as much about their collective growth – their learning to look behind the surface – as Auggie’s maturing courage in facing the world.
Chbosky mostly preserves the book’s device of multiple narrators, moving from character to character, including that of Auggie’s older sister Via (the excellent Izabela Vidovic), whose quiet neglect amid all the dramas surrounding her brother gives the film its most bittersweet counterpoint.
There’s one difference in the adaptation: Auggie’s chief tormentor, a trust-fund kid called Julian (Bryce Gheisar), is no longer given a distinct point of view. He’s intrusive enough even in Auggie’s part of the story, and that of Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the kid who tries hardest to befriend Auggie, but whose open-heartedness has its limits.
Reaching for the “mawkishness” stamp is easy enough for any adult viewer here – too easy, as a defence mechanism against the film’s earnest feeling and irreproachable message about choosing to be kind. OK, the script strong-arms us into surrender here and there, but more often it gently takes an elbow, exactly as Chbosky did in his previous feature, 2012’s soulful and compassion-filled coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Just as there, he’s got all the right performances rallying to his cause, headed straight up by Tremblay, who comes good on his hard-to-forget breakthrough in the Oscar-winning drama Room, and lets us all file away the hideous flop The Book of Henry as a different type of lesson learnt. It’s important that he’s unrecognisable under these skilful prosthetics, but his voice is not, and its high, quavering vulnerability has real character without needing to beg for our sympathies.
Wilson and Roberts are not only affecting on their own but opposite one another – they’re one of the more believable couples in recent American films, with his laissez-faire, you’re-the-boss manner and her emotional forthrightness see-sawing really well. The anxiety of these parents plays out as poignantly as their eventual pride.
Already a significant sleeper hit in the US, the film breaks Goldwyn’s rule into pieces, insisting on the educational value any mainstream portrait of impairment is bound to have, and inviting us all, kindly, to drop our guard.