I guess I’ve just been in a mood lately. While normally I’m somewhat repelled by feel good family cinema, the overwhelming bleakness in the world these days actually has me looking forward to more uplifting fare. Maybe I’m getting soft as I approach middle age, or maybe I’m simply utilizing one of the most important tenets of filmgoing by escaping the dreary real world and diving into a snapshot of another person's life. In most cases, a good dramedy serves exceedingly well to put your own issues into better perspective by experiencing the trials and tribulations of someone else, and there is no better attitude adjustment than witnessing the suffering of a child trying to overcome adversity. The new film WONDER not only tells such a story about a youngster facing a very unique set of challenges, but also provides lessons in empathy and forgiveness by illustrating that even those who seem to have it all face their own emotional hurdles everyday. Cynics beware: WONDER is definitely heavy on the warm fuzzies that will surely induce eye rolling in many a snarky viewer. Thankfully, a good dose of humor and wonderful performances from a stellar cast save the film from diving into Lifetime Movie Of The Week schmaltz.
WONDER begins with the story of Auggie Pullman, a ten year old who- like many other kids his age-is starting middle school after a lifetime of being home schooled by his mom. The difference for Auggie, however, is that he is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder that causes severe congenital facial deformations. Though numerous surgical procedures have restored his features to some degree aesthetically and functionally, Auggie still has to endure stares and finger pointing every time he goes out in public without the cover of his favorite astronaut helmet. As expected, the first week of school is bumpy as he weathers the usual peer ridicule, but as Auggie’s personality and smarts slowly begin to overshadow his visage, true friends eventually emerge. Although the narrative seems to revolve entirely around the young protagonist at first, soon the storyline shifts to show the vantage of those in Auggie’s orbit as well. So even though Auggie’s issues are certainly the most obvious, the diverging narratives of other characters show that nobody gets off easily in life.
Yes, WONDER hits all the right notes and doesn’t deviate too far from the formula, but the exploration of various viewpoints makes for a fascinating little tale. Just when I thought the film was going to be a straightforward heart warmer about tolerance and acceptance, actions by various characters make the film more a study in empathy and forgiveness than benevolence. Everyone eventually screws up or says the wrong thing at times, but understanding the complexity of human nature and moving on from even the worst betrayal is not only possible, it’s easier than you might think. I really appreciated each character’s unique take on the events in the film- especially when revealing their own flaws. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by Auggie’s revelation that even though he stands out, the world doesn’t revolve around him. So, even though the film is chock full of feel good warmth, it also doesn’t shy away from addressing certain hard realities in life with brutal honesty.
As sweet little Auggie, Jacob Tremblay is heartbreakingly real in his portrayal of the troubled boy. To see such a complex performance from a child who is also under the physical constraints of heavy prosthetics is astonishing. He ripped my heart out more than a few times in this outing, proving once again that he is not your run of the mill one trick pony child actor. Though Owen Wilson positively charms as Auggie’s happy go lucky dad and Izabela Vidovic made my heart ache as his sister Via, it is Julia Roberts that truly holds down the fort as Auggie’s protective momma bear. She’s so damn great at conveying the complex emotions a mom in her position would no doubt be going through. She wants to shield her son from heartache, yet she understands that he’ll never blossom if he continues to hide forever- with one furrowed brow, Roberts says this and more. Her beautifully bittersweet performance absolutely struck a chord with this fellow momma.
Despite a few melodramatic flashback sequences that didn’t feel quite right, WONDER pretty much nails the feel good family drama. I liked Auggie’s fantasy sequences peppered throughout the story- including a few awkward but fun Star Wars references. Though there are definitely some cheesy moments in the film, the overall balance between the harsh realities facing the characters and the softer scenes works out perfectly. I could have done without (what felt like to me) a “double ending” of sorts. I’m sure most people will love that it helps tie up the story with a shiny bow, but for me it served more to belabor the point.
So again, I went into WONDER totally needing some good feels, and luckily I got what I was expecting. It’s touching and inspiring and it’s exactly what families together for the holidays will pick to go see as a group. If you get the heebie jeebies from the warm fuzzies, this is definitely not the film for you, but if you are willing to go all in on a slightly sappy but hugely enjoyable emotional rollercoaster then WONDER is what you need.
Until next time,
aka Annette Kellerman