“Wonder” Movie Review

     Writer / director Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder” initially comes across as a star driven vehicle meant to appeal to those who would see films starring the likes of Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and “Room” breakout star Jacob Tremblay, but as it turns out, the story is meant to impact an audience that is significantly younger.  For all the fun and color that comes standard with every film churned out by Disney and Pixar or the mind numbing eye candy of the latest superhero extravaganza, “Wonder” is actually the film today’s kids need to see.  The lessons that can be learned here are immeasurable and even if a small portion of the children who see it manage to look away from their iPhones long enough to actually absorb the message buried not to deep within, you have to consider that a win for today’s decaying society where being mean and cruel is seen as the easiest path to popularity.

     “Wonder” is not based on a true story, but the book by R.J. Palacio of which it is based sets up a scenario that is actually quite extreme when considering the backlash experienced by Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a fifth grader born with facial differences, is not much different than the ridicule kids receive daily if they aren't wearing fashionable clothing brands.  If Chbosky made one crucial narrative choice, it was to not only tell the story from Auggie’s point of view, but also from the perch of those around him.  Certainly Auggie is being judged by both kids and adults who have no idea what it’s like to walk around in his shoes for a day, let alone for his 10 years of young life.  But what about his older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic)?  Or even the kids whose own insecurities and fears of being ousted from the in crowd lead to their cruelty towards Auggie.  What’s going on at home in their lives?  These various perspectives provide a rich and compelling narrative that effectively allows the film to get its point across, without being overly pretentious.

     If Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts) seem over protective with their son, Auggie, it’s because he is about to leave the sterile environment of being home schooled by his mom for the first time and enter the jungle that is an upscale private school in New York City.  The choice of setting here wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of how two parents would view a child like Auggie entering an environment with other kids for the first time, but it certainly helps that the family lives in what appears to be a million dollar plus Brownstone and has the benefit of sending Auggie to a prestigious prep school populated by the children of other well off families.  One has to wonder how the story would’ve played out if the child was the product of a low income family?  Nonetheless, money doesn't necessarily matter here, since kids who have been spoiled rotten are equally as menacing as those who might not know where their next meal is coming from.

     Prior to the first day of school, the principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), sets up a tour for Auggie with handpicked students who will hopefully help lessen the angst he will experience amongst all of the staring eyeballs. The interactions go just as you would think, introducing Jack Will (Noah Jupe), Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) as characters who will become important later in the story.  But none of this really prepares Auggie for that fateful first day.  Auggie himself is so self conscience of his appearance, that he gets around in a nifty looking NASA space helmet replica in order to conceal himself.  Aside from how he looks, he’s just a normal kid, who loves “Star Wars” and has an affinity for space and someday traveling to another planet.  The helmet does eventually come off, exposing Auggie to the often chaotic  setting of school in which various predators hide within the hallways, looking and laughing, giggling and snarling, and making the lives of the weaker kids miserable as long as it doesn't turn the tables on them.

     Turns out though that Auggie is much better prepared than he thought.  He, after all, has had people staring and joking about him for his entire life.  And when Chbosky gives us a peek into the lives of some these kids who prey on others at school, we find various divorce scenarios and struggling single parents at the helm of undisciplined children who take out their own problems on easy targets like Auggie.  But again, kids these days don't need someone with the issues Auggie has in order to find someone to bully.  And social media, which surprisingly doesn't come into play at all in “Wonder”, only makes it easier and significantly more widespread.

     There’s no doubt the contributions of Roberts and Wilson form the glue for the story, but in this case, it’s Tremblay and the cast of children who steal every scene they are in.  With each of their individual stories, they effectively create a believable set of social groups, both within the fifth grade elementary school setting, as well as the high school setting where Auggie’s sister, Via, navigates the loss of her best friend and the sacrifices that come with the special needs of her brother.  From top to bottom, the cast is game and is one of the best ensembles of the year.  In addition, Tremblay delivers yet another star making performance in his young career with the prospects moving forward being endless.  Few films are capable of having a lasting impact on an entire family, since it is often parents who are taking their kids to see a film designed to be on an adolescent level.  “Wonder” is one of those few and far between films which can have the kind of effect that just may result in a worthwhile conversation at the dinner table shortly after. One that will actually involve everyone’s input and perhaps encourage meaningful dialogue about things that really matter.  GRADE: A