Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG, 113 minutes
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Danielle Rose Russell, Noah Jupe, Millie Davis, Daveed Diggs, Bryce Gheisar, Gidget
It’s probably not a shocker to learn that the cinematic adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s best-selling novel WONDER is gonna make you cry. If you saw the trailer, or even heard a brief synopsis in passing, you would prepare yourself accordingly for the waterworks. Think the Bellagio’s water fountain spectacular, but from your eyeballs. It’s pretty much a guarantee. What is a heartrending surprise is how gently it delivers its earnest profundity on the ripple effect of kindness. It’s a non-cloying message kids and grown-ups alike need to either be reminded of or learn. Resonant, timely, uplifting and absolutely necessary, co-writer-director Stephen Chbosky’s heartening adaptation is a life jacket of hope when we’re lost in a sea of selfishness.
Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is your average 10-year-old who doesn’t look like any average 10-year-old. He was born with severe facial disfigurement and had to endure 27 surgeries to bring him to his current state of looking like a pint-sized Eric Stolz in MASK. No matter what, though, his personality, wit, charm and intelligence always shine through – that is, when he can get up the confidence to eschew his space-suit helmet. After being home-schooled all his life, Auggie’s shown he’s ready to join the masses at a mainstream school. If it’s not enough to struggle with how his classmates react to his appearance, especially garnering the unwanted attention of rich kid bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Auggie also must battle his own social awkwardness. It’s a good thing mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), dad Nate (Owen Wilson), older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic, who steals the film from Tremblay) and doggo Daisy (Gidget, who steals the film from everyone) are there to help get him through the tough days. However, they are dealing with problems of their own.
Palacio’s novel, as well as Chbosky, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne’s screenplay, doesn’t so much push its reassuring messages on audiences as it does simply float them as precepts – which, incidentally is something discussed within the film. The work done by the filmmakers to retain themes of redemption and hopefulness is also notable as it’s never done in a cloying manner. Kindness begets kindness in immeasurable ways. Kind also attracts kind. Selflessness, graciousness and compassion even in the face of adversity and evil are what counts. Character, which can only come from within, matters. And within each of the characters’ storylines, these life lessons reverberate. Yes, some of it is incredibly on the nose and a wee bit schmaltzy, but it’s valuable information that prepares youngsters to make this world a better place – one grown-ups may have forgotten could exist. Platitudes like “Your deeds are your monuments,” and “If it’s between being right or kind, choose kind,” grace the chalkboard of Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs). Mom espouses sayings like, “When someone acts small, you have to be the bigger person.” It seems so unreal since everyone has the exact perfect thing to say at the exact precise time. But you roll with it since these are important things our hearts yearn to see in action, impacting someone else to course correct their life.
That’s not to say this movie is perfect. Marcelo Zarvos’ score, while lovely, does overstay its welcome, pushing you into “the feels” when the narrative already has you there. A few narrative elements (ones I don’t want to spoil) feel rushed. Though the outcomes of the bullying sequences leads me to clutch my aching heart when I recount them, showing two similar sequences where fists fly feels excessive. Spitfire Summer (Millie Davis), Mr. Browne and Nate are dealt short shrift. They don’t get much to do but exclusively aid Auggie’s agency. While I wouldn’t want to add to the run time, I would like to see them each have their own moments like Auggie’s friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Via’s friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).
WONDER is remarkable for what it puts out there into the world – and hopefully, its inspiration will turn into action.
WONDER opens on November 17.