Friday 23 August 2019

Wonder review: 'I sobbed my heart out. A lovely little film'

4 stars

Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay in Wonder
Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay in Wonder

Chris Wasser

Oh, boy. I must admit, despite having read Wonder, the best-selling novel by American author, RJ Palacio, I still wasn’t prepared for what this fabulous film adaptation might do to me.

The 2012 book — a gorgeous children’s novel about a 10-year-old New Yorker named August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, who was born with a rare medical facial difference (Treacher Collins syndrome) and is enrolling in private school after years of being homeschooled by his mother — was a critical and commercial success. I remember picking it up on holidays a few years back. I read it in one sitting. It completely destroyed me.

On first glance, the film — co-written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (the author and film-maker who gave us The Perks of Being a Wallflower), looked to be little more than a fluffy, emotionally manipulative Hallmark flick, with a couple of Hollywood heavyweights thrown in for good measure.

But, you know, sometimes, trailers are misleading. Yes, indeed, Wonder sets out to tug at every one of our heart-strings. It is quite fluffy. It is emotionally manipulative. It’s also a sweet, endearing and confidently assembled, coming-of-age flick. That’s the difference, right there.

Wonder-ful: Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Wonder-ful: Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder

Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Book of Henry) is Auggie. As we’ve already covered, Auggie was born different. He’s endured more than two dozen surgeries since birth, and has never been to a real school before. His mum, Isabel (a beautifully cast Julia Roberts), has always been his teacher. Auggie is a bright kid, with an aptitude for science. He’s also funny, charming and a bit of a Star Wars nut.

After years of homeschooling, Isabel and her husband, Nate (Owen Wilson), decide that the time is right for young Auggie to attend a proper school. The school’s principal, Mr Tushman (a brilliant Mandy Patinkin) enlists a handful of students to give him a tour.

One of them is best-friend material; another is the class bully. Auggie is terrified. A lot happens. There are good days and bad days. Most of the kids don’t know what to make of Auggie’s appearance. Some are horrified; others sit and stare. Every time Auggie gets a little comfortable, the bullies knock him down. It’s hard-going.

Likewise, Nate and Isabel are worried sick one day and overjoyed the next. There is also the matter of Auggie’s teenage sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), who spent most of her childhood living in Auggie’s shadow, and has recently fallen out with her best mate, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). We’ve got an eventful ride ahead of us. Wonder kicks into gear at the start of school year and takes us all the way through to the following summer. It’s a lengthy trip, but you know what? It flies in. 

One of the best things about this irresistible drama is that it follows the shifting chapter style of Palacio’s novel, in that Wonder goes about telling its story from the different viewpoints of those who share their lives with Auggie. It’s a clever move. It also breathes fresh life into an otherwise formulaic set-up. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a sick dog involved?  Yep, Wonder is out to destroy all of us.

Again, it is unashamedly sentimental, old-fashioned and bursting to the seams with Important Life Lessons. But it’s very well put-together, indeed; a smart, effective and, occasionally, funny film that surprises at every turn. Tremblay is terrific in the lead role. A delightful Owen Wilson keeps his head as the obligatory cool dad. A teary Julia Roberts hasn’t been this good in ages.

Chbosky and his team remember to keep things authentic and playful. Wonder is, quite often, a film for kids, played out by kids. This is how they talk when the grown-ups aren’t around. This is a world in which everyone is still learning how everything works. Can we call it inspirational? Oh, go on, then.

It’s a compelling children’s story, and one that is treated with great respect, skill and class. Mark my words: Wonder will stay with you. And, yes, I sobbed my heart out. A lovely little film.


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