Director: Stephen Chbosky | 113 minutes | drama, family | Actors: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Julia Roberts, Mark Dozlaw, Rukiya Bernard, Jennifer March, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James A. Hughes, J Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Danielle ROse Russell, Erika McKitrick, Nadji Jeter, Benjamin Ratner
Raquel Jaramillo Palacio worked for years as an illustrator before breaking through as a writer in 2012. Under her pseudonym R.J. Palacio received critical acclaim for her debut novel “Wonder”. For the story she was inspired by her own experiences. In 2007 she visited an ice cream parlor just outside New York with her son. There they met a girl with Treacher Collins syndrome, a serious facial defect. Her son was so shocked at the sight of the girl that he burst into tears. Palacio felt confronted with her own helplessness because she did not know how to respond adequately to the situation and that prompted her to write ‘Wonder’, a plea for an open mind with which she wants to encourage people to look further than someone’s appearance. As is often the case with bestsellers, “Wonder” was made into a movie. Director Steven Chbosky, who also co-wrote the screenplay, made his breakthrough in 2012 with the fine coming-of-age film “The Perks of Being a Wall Flower” and also focuses in this film on the perception of children. The anecdote of Palacio and her son in the ice cream parlor naturally got a place in the film, which regularly balances on the wafer-thin edge of warm family drama and very sweet sentiment, but thanks to excellent acting and sympathetic characters remains just on the right side of the line.
Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) Pullman are a bit of a shock when their son Auggie is born; he appears to have serious abnormalities on his face. Fortunately, plastic surgery can be used to tinker with his face, but he continues to look different from other children. Isabel protects her son by putting everything aside to devote herself fully to caring for him. His first years he is schooled at home. But when he is ten years old (and is now played by Jacob Tremblay), he really has to believe it: Auggie is going to school for the first time. “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” said his father. Auggie prefers to hide his face under a Star Wars helmet, but once at school he will have to take it off. Children are very hard on each other, and Auggie is the butt of ridicule from day one. Bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) in particular has the dick on him. School is a hard learning experience for Auggie, but fortunately his parents have given him a solid foundation and he is not easily fooled. Moreover, there appear to be some children who want to associate with him. Jack (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis) for example. But how firmly do they stand when the bullies also attack them?
“Wonder” not only shows from Auggie’s point of view what it is like to live with a serious facial defect. The (young) people in his environment also have to adapt. In the first place, there is Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who has always come to second place since the birth of her so much desired little brother. And she has always done that without grumbling, because she loves her little brother. But now that she’s an adolescent with her own troubles, it’s not always easy to have to play second fiddle. Her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) suddenly doesn’t see her after the summer holidays and her parents don’t have time to talk to her about it because they are busy with Auggie. Fortunately, there is a nice new boy at school (Nadji Jeter) who offers distraction. Apart from Via’s point of view, we also see events from Jack and Miranda’s perspective, although the main focus remains with Auggie. However, switching perspectives enlivens the film and sets “Wonder” apart from similar films. Moreover, the shift in perspective also underscores one of the central messages in the film: the whole world is not all about Auggie and it is important that he himself – and also his parents, especially his mother – realize this too.
“Wonder” clearly responds to the emotions of the viewer and the sentiment is a bit too heavy here and there. Certainly towards the end it all becomes a bit too much of a good thing. However, this does not alter the fact that this is a well-made film, with after ‘Room’ (2015) again a convincing leading role for the young Jacob Tremblay, who is unrecognizable thanks to the great make-up of Dutchman (!) Arjen Tuiten. Despite the mask and the thick layer of makeup he knows how to bring nuances to his performance and that is great for a little guy of barely eleven years old. Incidentally, Tuiten deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his work. Incidentally, the other children, with Noah Jupe and Izabela Vidovic in front, are also playing very well. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson have a fine chemistry together, but are clearly on the second plan: this film is carried by the child actors. Wilson is an actor with a high irritation factor, but is fine here. Another fun adult role comes for Mandy Patinkin as the articulate and understanding principal of the school.
Although the story is full of clichés, and sentiment sometimes prevails, the final verdict for “Wonder” still turns out positive. The message that the film wants to convey is of course not the most original and is superimposed on it, but Chbosky still manages to open our eyes: how would you react if you saw a boy with such a deformed face? Put yourself in that child, how must he feel? He can’t help being born that way. Instead of staring at, bullying or ignoring such a child, he earns his place. The heartwarming of that message, plus the convincing acting of the mostly young cast, let us overlook a lot.