By Preston Wilder
The wonder of Wonder is how smart it is – or indeed that it’s smart at all, given that it works in a genre that doesn’t need, or encourage, intelligence. When you’ve got a little boy (played by 11-year-old Jacob Tremblay) with a terribly disfigured face embarking on his first year of school after years of being homeschooled by his mum (Julia Roberts) and dad (Owen Wilson), all that matters is whether he’ll be bullied, how he’ll survive, and how often the audience can be made to click its tongue and exclaim ‘That poor little boy!’. Whether the dialogue is sharp, or the structure inventive, is frankly irrelevant.
Yet the dialogue is sharp in Wonder, and the structure is inventive; director Stephen Chbosky (who worked similar magic with slightly older characters five years ago in The Perks of Being a Wallflower) takes a simple message and frames it in a strikingly complex way. The message is the usual exhortation to be nice to people who are different, like little Auggie – but the usual unspoken rationale is that we should be nice because they’re different, whereas Wonder leans hard on the more humane flipside: because they’re the same.
Chbosky (adapting R.J. Palacio’s bestselling children’s novel) keeps shifting away from Auggie to explore the lives of his parents, his sister, his sister’s friend, his schoolfriends, etc. The strategy seems counter-intuitive, since this genre – the sick-child tearjerker – depends so completely on empathy with the little victim, but in fact the effect is inspiring, giving the boy some dignity (erasing the ‘victim’ tag as much as possible) and positioning his problems alongside other people with their own problems. Teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) is hurt because her BFF Miranda has come back from summer holidays a different person – but Miranda, it turns out, has her own inner turmoil, and her own reasons for snubbing her friend. Via has a hidden back-story (a whole other film might’ve been made about her), having spent her life in Auggie’s shadow; her only real friend was her late grandma, who of course loved Auggie too – but loved her more, because Auggie “has a lot of angels looking out for him”.
All this, strictly speaking, is irrelevant. It’s also irrelevant that Daisy the dog falls sick, and has to be put down. It’s irrelevant that Via’s taking part in the school play, or that Mum longs to finish her long-dormant thesis. It’s irrelevant that the school’s drama teacher suffers from depression. This, however, is the point of the movie: everyone contains their own world, not unlike Minecraft World – a parallel universe – where Auggie and his friend Jack Will are able to patch up a quarrel, saying things they couldn’t have said in ‘real life’. “Not everything is about you,” Auggie is told – but in fact that’s only semi-true. None of the other people’s problems are directly ‘about’ Auggie, yet they also reflect his own life – because people’s problems confirm their humanity, and by extension also his.
Wonder is filled with smart lines and fine performances. (Special mention for Roberts, who’s graduated to mummy roles without losing the febrile ferocity she had as a younger woman.) It can also seem too smart for its own good, to the point of sounding glib – Via in voice-over: “My mother has a great eye. I just wish she’d use it to look at me” – and can also seem a bit too nice, too right-thinking, too progressive. “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind” is one of the ‘precepts’ offered to Auggie’s fifth-grade class by their (young, hip, African-American) homeroom teacher, and the film seems to live by that kind of painfully self-conscious altruism. One suspects Chbosky is a bit like Auggie’s dad, a wry beta male who retreats discreetly at first sign of confrontation.
Still, a sensitive philosophical movie about a handicapped child is vastly preferable to a crude manipulative movie about a handicapped child. Nor is the film entirely soft-centred, alive to the cruelty of kids – Auggie’s classmates initially shun him, ‘joking’ that whoever touches him will catch the plague – and why our hero loves Halloween above all else: because he can walk with his head high, safe behind his mask, instead of looking down at the ground like he does the rest of the year.
Wonder has been slightly controversial. Real-life victims of similar conditions predictably criticised it for casting an able-bodied actor in the lead – but it’s silly to pretend that some random kid actor could play this role just because he looks the part (Tremblay, the young star of Room, is exceptional), and such criticisms also miss the point, which is that the film isn’t ultimately about physical appearance but something much deeper, humanity itself. “All you have to do is look at people,” muses Auggie, meaning look below the surface – whether it’s physical deformity or anything else – to the complex, roiling universe beneath. Wonder does, and that’s wonderful.
DIRECTED BY Stephen Chbosky
STARRING Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson
US 2017 113 mins