It’s a Wonder
By Ryan O’Donnell
After several years of persuasion and demand from fans, R.J. Palacio’s New York Times bestseller-dubbed by Entertainment Weekly as a “crackling page-turner”-finally splashes onto the silver screen. Wonder essentially plays out as a classic “underdog triumphs above all” tale, whilst also being a coming-of-age story; the latter type of tale being something the film’s director Stephen Chbosky has a great deal of experience with, seeing as he wrote the best-selling novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and produced its film adaptation. Although Chbosky has proven that he is certainly no rookie at pulling instantly classic novels from the bookshelf to the big screen, his adaptation of Wonder is rather hit-or-miss.
Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a bright young boy unfortunately born with a condition known as “mandibulofacial dysostosis”, played by acting freshman Jacob Tremblay. His medical condition has required a large number of plastic surgeries throughout his life to help fix his facial deformities, resulting in a disfigured appearance. After being home-schooled for years, Auggie’s parents, portrayed by familiar faces and A-listers Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, Old School) and Academy Award winner Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman), decide it is the right to time for him to go to regular middle school. Initially a victim of bullying and isolation from fellow classmates, August meets Jack Will, played by newcomer Noah Jupe, and thus finally finds a friend he is able to confide in. The film’s style of storytelling is interesting and even somewhat innovative as it shows several different characters telling their side of the story, including Auggie, Jack Will, Auggie’s neglected sister Olivia “Via” Pullman, and her best friend Miranda.
Wonder possesses a rather apt title: while in the theater, you sit there wondering how the film could have lived up to its fullest potential, which, unfortunately, the film fails to do. The moral that the movie attempted to convey is that the inner qualities and good traits of a human being are what truly makes them beautiful in another person’s eyes. However, the film seems to provide the viewers with a mixed message, as most of the characters appear to befriend Auggie out of sheer sympathy for his medical condition rather than his inner beauty. This could reasonably be blamed by the fact that the picture ultimately does a solid job at developing all of its characters except for its protagonist, Auggie.
While the film does a fine job at displaying the inspiring backstories of Miranda and Via, it does an inadequate job at explaining why we should root for Auggie. It does show his impressive knack for science and relatable interest in video games, but it’s not enough. On top of this, the movie’s aforementioned unique style of storytelling helps to bring the most out of almost all of its characters, except for Auggie and his best friend Jack Will. Whilst the other characters have several scenes of footage dedicated to the way they see the world, Jack Will is sadly left out in the cold.
In addition, the overall premise of the movie, while interesting and worthy of catching attention, is a bit cliched. One can’t help but be reminded of the 1985 critical and commercial hit drama film Mask, which was based on a true story. That film starred Academy Award winner Cher (Moonstruck, The Witches of Eastwick) as the mother of teenage craniodiaphyseal dysplasia patient Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis, played by Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction, Rob Roy). The two stories share some questionable similarities, as both movies are coming-of-age tales involving a boy born with severe facial deformities facing early ostracization from peers, managing to pull through and earn respect from their communities afterwards. The common “young-person-with-physical-disability- triumphs-above-all” story has been done for decades, and while it is always effective at filling audiences with hope, it can be viewed as unoriginal. For this reason, it is difficult to call Wonder an entirely original film.
What the film lacks in character development it makes up for in smile-inducing performances. Owen Wilson impressively manages to upstage his castmates by serving as the film’s comic relief, delivering some witty one-liners and proving himself to be an excellent father figure to Auggie. Every once in awhile, Wilson sheds the goofy “frat-boy” image he has been known for the majority of his career and broadens his horizon, either by packing punches in summer action blockbusters (Armageddon, No Escape, Behind Enemy Lines) or delivering in films that blur the line between comedy and drama such as this one. In Wonder, he manages to turn in one of his finest performances to date.
Standing out above the rest along with Owen Wilson is veteran character actor Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Showtime’s Homeland), who plays the school principal Mr. Tushman. Patinkin’s character is a bright source of encouragement for Auggie, a boy who needs it most. Unlike some stereotypical “evil” principals–both in the movies and in real life–Mr. Tushman is reasonable in his decisions and always knows right from wrong. In one particularly memorable scene, Jack Will finds himself in a predicament while defending Auggie’s honor against a despicable bully. While Tushman suspends both Jack and the bully, he acknowledges that good friends always stick up for one another through thick and thin, and allows Jack to retain his scholarship to the school. Patinkin’s charm and warmth as Mr. Tushman both aide the film by being a great source of moral support for the juvenile characters, and by providing a reasonable amount of pathos for the audience.
Wonder undeniably boasts satisfying acting from a likeable cast and a remarkable style of storytelling. Unfortunately, one can’t help but think of the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brain when watching the film. Wonder merely tugs at the heartstrings of the audience when it should be twisting it into a pretzel or playing a game of tug-of-war with it. The film’s mixed message and so-so character development hinder what could be a truly inspiring story. The film shouldn’t be considered unworthy, however; many will find it hard to resist to the indisputable charm of the titular character’s actor Jacob Tremblay, in spite of his character not living up to his fullest potential. Rating: 3/5
Watch the trailer here
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs
Running time: 1 hr 53 min