Wonder (2017)

“If you don’t like where you are, just picture where you want to be.”

After exiting the theater – a surprisingly crowded Monday matinée that rightfully concluded with a clapping chorus of praise – I didn’t turn to open my phone and check social media, instead candidly eavesdropping on the conversations happening around me. One little girl, no older than 8, proclaimed this difficult drama to be, “a really good movie!” Another young man who must roam some Junior High halls could be heard comparing the film to author R.J. Palacio’s source material novel. “I’m surprised how I could picture things before they even happened,” he said with great intrigue, pacing around the decorative theater carpets with a smile on his face. One elderly woman pushed through the doors in visible tears. These vivid, unfiltered, completely honest reactions to such a grounded and mature story are the purest recommendations that you go see the joyous Wonder as soon as possible. I loved this film, and I greatly admired its ability to connect with audiences of all ages at such a human level. The movie somehow teaches without preaching.

It’s quite strange, when you think about it, that we are never capable of seeing ourselves exactly how others see us. The best we can visually do is a refracted reflection (a point that this melancholic, hardly subtle story manages with great grace). Little August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) doesn’t even want that though, almost wishing he was a vampire by comparison. As his older and now overlooked sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) puts it, Auggie won a genetic lottery that no person would ever cash-in. Their passionate and intelligent Mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) had the same bad gene as their supportive and slyly affable Dad Nate (Owen Wilson). He has what’s called Treacher Collins syndrome, resulting in facial deformities and other impairments. Auggie doesn’t like being different because strangers’ eyes linger and often do double-takes. However, Mom and Dad love his scars because they’re on the face of their son. They shower him with love, but now is the time to release their home-schooled pup from their fancy Brownstone and into the wild of 5th grade at a New York prep school. Isabel lets him go saying, “Dear God, please make them be nice to him.” Even an Atheist would want this quick prayer to be answered immediately.

Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) corals his homeroom crew the way that only the best teachers can; with great pride in his or her profession. Even after an introduction by Principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin, whose name gets a punchline laugh without resorting to fart jokes) with fellow students before the school year starts – including Julian (Bryce Gheisar) the bully, Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) the aspiring actress, and Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a nice kid who learns to think before he speaks – Auggie still feels like an outsider. In a poignant piece of creativity, Wonder director Stephen Chbosky explores this discomfort by allowing Auggie to dream. To take a leave of absence from reality and to check-in at a place that’s warmer, more relatable and comfortable. August Pullman wants to be an astronaut among the stars, and what company would be a better match for his incandescent spiritual flame. Wonder might be a slightly overlong film, but when the story is this smart and touching, you forget the clock and simply experience its childlike innocence with open arms. You’ll be better for having seen it.

Wonder could’ve easily been a middling and mediocre film that tugged heartstrings and earned a few tears. But that’s not its goal either, as evidenced by the book and script’s ambitious structure. There always are two sides to every story, and instead of investigating fact versus fiction, the film simply lets things unfold from different character perspectives in the way that life so often does: illogically, awkwardly, and full of self-questioning. We’re told that Auggie is this family’s sun and that he is the center of this universe. It’s true. And so the story takes tangents to see things from a different POV, allowing the rest of the characters to complete their own dramatic arcs, enriching their purpose, making a point to have everyone change for the better. Wonder’s storytelling is a bit lackadaisical in this regard, but its unblemished goodness provides the elbow grease to shine through and laugh with – never meanly at – all of its many inequities. It takes such strength to see your flaws and to own them with a smile.

Watch a movie full of kids and you’ll immediately know if you’re witnessing the craft of a good director. Stephen Chbosky – after writing / adapting the milestone picture The Perks of Being a Wallflower – just knows what he’s doing. All of the children are superb, especially the prodigy Jacob Tremblay, a young man so talented that he makes me believe in reincarnation. Roberts is a blanket of warmth. Wilson aides with a soft hand. And Vidovic, when given the opportunity, gives what I think is the best performance in the film as a young woman who’s forced to fight her own battles. I fully believe that Wonder – a necessary movie for kids and adults alike – has the restorative properties that so-called anti-aging creams and fat-burning elixirs falsely advertise. This is a film that can heal wounds, not by licking them like a pup, but by airing them out for all to see. Some say that prayer without action is futile. I think this is true, and I consider great cinema like this to be its own form of worship. This powerful picture packs a two-hour punch similar to that of the empowering Special Books by Special Kids YouTube channel, and it’s a vocal reminder to all of us that being seen is as equally important as it is for everyone to see each other equally.

“We all deserve a standing ovation at least once in our lives.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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