Wonder takes a sensitive approach with a strong moral backing.
As someone who has never read RJ Palacio’s hit novel Wonder, I was able to watch the movie without constantly evaluating whether it’s “like the book” and defining its merits based on that. As expected, Wonder‘s big screen adaptation meets some tropes of the typically sickly-sweet teen movie, but it has several features which help to set it apart from the rest of the crowd.
There’s the remarkable acting ability of the child stars; they are on par with veteran co-stars like Julia Roberts. As Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) himself stated, he “isn’t your average 5th-grader”, and Wonder certainly isn’t your average movie. The film begins being narrated by Auggie which, whilst not a new technique, is essential. Too often are people with defects like Auggie’s spoken for and used merely as a device to show how they’re a burden on their parents and those around them. But showing Auggie’s perspective does two very important things. Firstly, it shows us that he must deal with this more than anyone, living with it every day. And secondly it reminds us that he’s just a normal kid who likes Star Wars, and gets jitters about starting school. This isn’t just a preachy movie, however: the strain Auggie’s condition has on his family is evident – his mother (Roberts) put aside her thesis, educating him at home and side-lining her daughter Via (Izabela Vidovic), whilst the latter herself is shown to feel lonely with Auggie being, in her narrative, “the centre of the universe” which the family just orbit around. This doesn’t show Auggie in a bad light, but is a necessary part of reality for families with disabled siblings, as I myself know.
Most of characters are fleshed out and take on three-dimensional roles. We see that Via is more than the jealous sister as we go on a journey with her, as she copes with the losses of all her support systems, including her grandmother and best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). We go on a journey where the two siblings grow in confidence: Auggie learns not to hide behind a mask, whilst Via constructs her own identity as she grows into her own person and ends with a standing ovation with a stunning performance in the school play. However, it is disappointing that the film pairs her up with a boy to magically solve all her problems. A more sophisticated personal development would make for a less lazy and shoe-horned romance plot that wasn’t particularly engaging. Furthermore, Miranda’s narrative is unconvincing, and her problems still don’t explain her actions. However, one scene with Auggie redeems an otherwise two-dimensional character, showing a genuine bond between the two as well as an important moment of growth for Miranda. Ultimately, whilst Julia Roberts gives a stunning performance as Auggie’s mum, Owen Wilson as the father had potential and depth which was not sufficiently explored.
Returning to the main plot, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing the magnitude and painful nature of bullies at school. Some of the notes like “you should kill yourself” may be argued as being inappropriate in a children’s movie, but this kind of bullying is something that many children relate to and face every day. It is not pleasant to watch, but it is something that we should be made aware of: childhood bullying is real, and a lot more serious than some think. The acting of the ringleader Julian (Bryce Gheisar) must be noted here, as he plays the convincing role of an unlikeable bully throughout, without verging into pantomime villain territory. Furthermore, the perspective of Auggie’s friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) gives the perspective of a child we all relate to: somebody who’s a good person deep down but is fearful of social isolation. He makes mistakes but isn’t a bad person, he stands up and accepts he did wrong.
A running thread in Wonder that makes it worth watching is it’s instilling of moral values in the form of Mr Browne (Daveed Diggs), Auggie’s teacher. He introduces mature and memorable precepts in the film that inspire the characters to change. We see student Summer (Millie Davis) break away from a group of mean-girls to befriend Auggie. The most inspiring part of the film is certainly a reading of some of his precepts whilst we are treated to a montage of his students changing and putting these precepts into action as they slowly accept Auggie.
What makes this movie different is that it doesn’t say everything will be rosy in the end. Even after the main bully Julian is defeated, Auggie is still confronted by subsequent bullies with Jack on a violent encounter during a school trip. However, what’s different this time is that classmates (most notably, previous bullies) stand up for Auggie. What this shows is that with Auggie’s condition, he will always come across difficulty and adversity in life, but if there are kind people surrounding him then he will be OK. Whilst there are a few characterisation faults, Wonder ultimately lives up to its name with a uniquely mature and touching.
Wonder (2017), directed by Stephen Chbosky, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, certificate PG.