"Wonder" carries a potent anti-bullying message in conveying the story of 10-year-old Auggie, who has a genetic facial disorder.
There’s no doubt “Wonder” has its big-old, blubbering heart in the right place with its potent anti-bullying message. But as constituted by co-writer-director Stephen Chbosky, the whole enterprise goes down like a big ol’ gulp of Robitussin. It’s good for you, but the aftertaste is a tad pungent.
It’s certainly no fault of wunderkid Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), who even behind layers of putty and prosthetics can act up a storm as a 10-year-old New Yorker with a genetic facial disorder. He’s Auggie, and if the name doesn’t strike you as adorable, you’re in the wrong theater, because in “Wonder,” adorable names are in oversupply, from Summer to Grans to Jack Will to Via. But, for now, we’ll focus on Auggie and the 27 surgeries that have failed to put his disfigured face back together again.
To me, Auggie doesn’t look that bad, but to other fifth-graders at his new highfalutin middle school (his first public institution since being home-taught), he’s treated like Frankenstein’s monster. No one will eat lunch with him, no one will touch him and no one will show him the tiniest bit of empathy. Chbosky can’t seem to deliver enough wrenching scenes of the clueless kids being cruel to Auggie. But what’s odd is that he’s the only student being ostracized. I don’t know about you, but when I was in fifth grade there were dozens of misfits getting the cold shoulder from the “cool” kids, including me. Perhaps that’s because everyone else in Auggie’s class looks like a flawless Hollywood darling, which is exactly what they are. And it’s distracting.
So are the random name cards that pop up on screen, suggesting that the segment called “Via” will give us the sister’s view of what it’s like having a little brother that’s the constant center of her parents’ (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts) attention. The story does explore some of that, but only for a short while before abruptly shifting focus until the next name card randomly appears. Even more odd, we only get four of these alternate perspectives: Auggie, Via (Izabela Vidovic), Via’s estranged bestie, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and Auggie’s intermittent pal, Jack Will (Noah Jupe). Then they just stop popping up, possibly because the device isn’t working.
Well, not completely. These different viewpoints do remind us that Auggie isn’t the only one with problems, which is basically the film’s chief message: That you shouldn’t judge anyone until you’ve lived a day or two in their shoes. That stuff is undeniably good, but in adapting R.J. Palacio’s best-selling novel, Chbosky and his writing mates Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne never venture beyond skin deep. Ironic, since the whole story revolves around judging people by what’s on the inside instead of the outside. But “outside” is mostly where we stay.
You ask yourself, “Where’s the pain and realism that infiltrated every frame of Chbosky’s last film, the superb ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’”? Here, he gets lazy, even resorting to killing off a pet for no other reason than as a cheap ploy to prey on our tear ducts. Sorry, I’m not falling for it. Nor am I buying kids whose loyalties shift like the wind without logic or reason. Like, why Miranda would drop Via like a rock at the start of their freshman year, and then inexplicably claim “bygones” by the time Christmas arrives. What changed? And why does Auggie’s only friend, Jack, start saying mean, horrible things about his buddy when he thinks our pint-sized hero is out of earshot?
Perhaps if the story were more involving it would be easier to overlook the flaws, the biggest of which is the film’s utter predictability, not to mention its love of the rote, like the inevitable standing ovation by an auditorium full of Auggie’s peers who’ve conveniently changed their wont to exclude him by the end of the school year. “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” anyone? Or, how about “In & Out”? And for you older folks, “To Sir with Love.” The scene is supposed to have you reaching for the Kleenex, but the unoriginality left me cold.
Still, I can’t fault the performances. The kid actors are all spot on, as is Mandy Patinkin as the school’s too-good-to-be-true principal, Mr. Tushman. But Wilson and Roberts are largely wasted in underwritten roles. Heck, we never even find out what Dad does for a living. But it must be high-paying considering the clan resides in an oversized Manhattan brownstone, the mortgage for which must be a load coming on top of what must be huge medical bills for Auggie. I know I’m nitpicking, but such lapses in nuance are indicative of a film that’s interested in appealing to your tear ducts more than your brain. But if “Wonder” can get through to even one bully, it more than earns its worth.
WONDER (PG for thematic elements including bullying and some mild language.) Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Mandy Patinkin. Grade: B-