D: Stephen Chbosky / 113m
Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Millie Davis, Danielle Rose Russell, Nadji Jeter, Sonia Braga
Imagine you’re at a restaurant and pancakes are on the menu. Now imagine that you’ve ordered said pancakes and they’ve just arrived at your table. The waiter (or waitress; let’s keep this fair) offers you maple syrup. You say please, and they begin to pour the maple syrup over the pancakes. And they continue pouring… and pouring… and pouring… Soon, the pancakes are swimming in maple syrup, and just the mere thought of tucking into them has become as desirable as if the waiter or waitress had poured an okra smoothie over them. This is the gourmet version of Wonder, a movie so glutinously nice, and so determinedly uplifting that it should come with a health warning. It not only tugs unashamedly at the heartstrings, but inspires lashings of sympathetic responses and unabashed sentimentality. It’s a massive sugar rush for fans of emotionalism and softheartedness.
For once, though, all this wistful sensitivity actually works – although you’d still be wise to wear waist-high waders in order to combat the rising tide of persistent romanticism that the movie fosters. In adapting R.J. Palacio’s novel, director Chbosky, along with co-screenwriters Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, have retained the book’s wholesome dramatics, and tried extra hard to ensure there isn’t a dry eye in the house by the time they’ve finished. What this means for the movie as a whole, is that August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay somewhere under all the prosthetics), and his first time in school at the age of ten, becomes an exercise in survival for him, and a precautionary tale for the viewer who must overcome several instances where the script goes for the emotional jugular in its efforts to “hit home”.
August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay) suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that is characterised by deformities affecting the eyes, ears, cheekbones and chin. It’s incurable, but the symptoms can be managed, and life expectancy is normal. Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Roberts), but now it’s time for him to attend a school where there are other pupils and other teachers. Isabel insists everything will be alright, and Auggie wants to believe her, but inevitably he’s treated differently by all the other children. He’s bullied by one child, Julian (Gheisar), but finds a friend in another, Jack Will (Jupe). As the school year continues, Auggie learns that being different has both its ups and downs, and he grows in confidence as a result. Meanwhile, his older sister, Via (short for Olivia) (Vidovic), has problems of her own: her best friend, Miranda (Russell), isn’t talking to her, and her first day in high school has her feeling lost and alone.
Wonder‘s appealing sense of family dynamics makes the Pullmans seem impervious to external harm or misfortune; they even argue amongst each other with good grace. No problem is too big for them to overcome, and no issue is allowed to stop them from remaining as tight-knit and loving a family as you could ever wish for. And that’s the beauty of the narrative: it’s a fairy tale where the frog prince is welcomed into the fold despite never being able to turn into a handsome prince. It’s a wish fulfilment fantasy where everyone – even those who are initially horrible to Auggie and bully him at every turn – comes to be his friend and appreciates him for who he is and not what he looks like. Let’s be serious about this. This is a movie that has no grounding in any reality that any child with Treacher Collins syndrome would experience. Instead it’s a movie whose reality seems based on what that child would wish for. It’s a dubious conceit, but because the script is unequivocal in its approach – Auggie will triumph over all his adversities – there’s little room to manoeuvre. Either you go with the flow of the movie and give yourself over to its ultra-positive nature, or you struggle against it and allow yourself to be weighed down by its unabashed mawkishness.
If you choose the former, then thankfully there’s much to enjoy, not least from the performances. We haven’t really seen enough of Julia Roberts in recent years, but here she gives an impressive portrayal of a mother who has willingly put her career on hold to look after her son, and who has found a tremendous sense of purpose in doing so. Roberts is the movie’s anchor, her role the one that stabilises it and gives it meaning in the face of so much untrammelled sensitivity. Without her, Wonder would have a hollow centre where Isabel should be. Alongside her is Wilson, essaying much the same character he played in Marley & Me (2008), and offering a comic foil to Roberts’ more serious portrayal. He’s the light relief when things threaten to become too serious and the movie needs to right itself. Under all the make up, Tremblay continues to impress as the smart but emotionally smarting Auggie, and the young actor plays the role as the natural that he is. Sometimes it’s hard to express appropriate emotions from under a layer of latex, but Tremblay has no such problem, and he’s perhaps the perfect choice for the role.
Kudos too to Vidovic, who invests Via with an independence that allows the character to operate separately from the Pullman family dynamic, and Jeter as Via’s eventual boyfriend, Justin, a role that requires him to hang around and be nice a lot, something he pulls off without making it seem too weird. There’s plenty of weird going on elsewhere, but in a good way, as the movie allows Auggie triumph after triumph and keeps him away from any drama that might affect his slow rise to middle school stardom. The movie is with him all the way, knocking down obstacles and pushing aside unwanted nuisances. By the movie’s (slightly preposterous) end, Auggie’s luck will be left unchallenged and his family will remain as good-natured and eternally supportive as they were at the beginning. But this is still a good thing, and though the movie does look and sound as if it’s deliberately trying to induce tears in its audience, going against such a thing is, ultimately, too tiring and too much of a struggle to keep up for nearly two hours. As the Borg would say, “resistance is futile”.
Rating: 7/10 – an immensely appealing slice of unreality, Wonder is completely uninterested in making any of its characters suffer for very long, and by extension its viewers too, as it strives to make itself the feelgood movie of 2017; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh and cry some more, but in the hands of Chbosky and his talented cast, and despite some very high levels of romanticism and unrestrained poignancy, this is something of an unexpected treat.