Tear-jerkers are always manipulative movies, and “Wonder” is no different. But tear-jerkers (weepers, if you prefer) that earn those tears honestly are a cut above mere manipulation.
And “Wonder,” through depictions of the burdens shouldered by its characters, through jolting displays of childhood cruelty and heartfelt moments of compassion, earns that reach-for-the-handkerchief. I’m no ashamed to say it got to me, here and there.
And I’m not above also pointing out that much of the goodwill its touching reality engenders is undercut by a drawn-out, melodramatic “participation medal” of a third act.
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are the upper-middle-class parents of young August (Jacob Tremblay), our hero and narrator. He’s about to leave the comfort of home-schooling for fifth grade in a private prep school. But “Auggie” is, as he narrates, “not an ordinary 10 year-old.” Not at all. “I just don’t LOOK ordinary.”
A problem birth, which he relates as “hilarious,” left him nerve damage and facially deformed. Twenty-seven operations later, and his scars show, his ears barely look like ears and there’s no symmetry to his face. But hey, his hearing, sight and mind are fine, thank you.
All he’s got to do is deal with peers, for the first time. And that’s got Mom blurting out a prayer to Dad as they drop him off.
“Dear God, please let them be nice to him.”
That turns out to be a bit too much to ask of “them.” “What’s the deal with your face?” is the nice version. “Darth HIDEOUS” (he’s into “Star Wars”) and “Freddy Krueger” are merely the movie fan-friendly putdowns.
“Wonder” presents this story with a team of competent, compassionate adults — parents, and teachers led by the principal (Mandy Patinkin), who knows a good elementary school joke on himself when he hears it.
“I’m Mr. TUSHman. You can LAUGH at that.”
But the children, almost to a one, have an intuitive cruelty that this odd-looking shrimp in their midst brings out. One of the wonders of “Wonder” is the way the movie sets this up, and then slowly makes that wall of hostility and bullying crack.
Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky, who wrote and directed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” knows the way to strum the heartstrings — by casting well, and putting good actors in huge, subtle, underplayed closeups.
The novel twist to this “‘Mask’ Before Middle School” is how the adults fade into the background, and we’re given chapter back-stories on not just Auggie, but on others impacted by his life, starting with his older sister, Via (Izabella Vidovic, a revelation). She’s entered high school, and feeling the pain of losing touch with her best friend.
Because in her house, Auggie sucks up all the energy and attention. She’s sensitive to this, but sensitive enough to see that her parents could not bear the burden of one instance of trouble from her. She’s low-maintenance, and great at being a big sister.
“You can’t blend in if you were born to stand out.”
She’s just lonely. Others who deal with Auggie get the benefit of a little back-story, too. This is a movie (based on an R.L Palacio novel) that, in the lessons the teachers impart, the reminders from the ‘good’ parents and the gentle lectures the principal gives not-so-good parents, errs on the side of kindness.
As the old saying goes, “Everybody’s dealing with something.” “Wonder” lets us marvel at that, exult in that “first friend” breakthrough and wince at the ways peer pressure and a popular bully make things hell for those who aren’t ordinary.
It goes on a little too long, and goes a little astray as it does. Auggie imagines “Star Wars” characters escorting him through school, and being a science and space buff, hides under a space helmet when he’s feeling particularly vulnerable.
But “Wonder” gives us empathy for a little boy with a huge weight to carry, and for those who figure out that to be “the bigger person,” they should help him with his burdens.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Izabella Vidovic, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin
Credits:Directed by Stephen Chbosky, script by Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne based on the novel by R, J. Palacio. A — release.
Running time: 1:53