Based on the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is rather straightforward about what kind of movie it wants to be. From the opening frames of the adaptation from director Stephen Chbosky, Wonder establishes its intent to make you weep early and often in its story of a young man with a facial deformity and his journey from homeschooling into a preppy middle school. Wonder works for the most part, though often the film loses track of its story as it bounces around a number of subplots that may have worked very well on the page but not quite on the screen.
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is pretty much like any other kid. He loves Star Wars. He dreams of one day being an explorer on the far reaches of our galaxy. The only thing that is unusual about Auggie is a medical condition that is kind of vaguely explained – something to do with chromosomes and 27 surgeries. Auggie is surrounded by a loving family that tends to his needs. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) is a laidback dad that enjoys cutting dad jokes and engaging in lightsaber battles with his son. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) teaches Auggie at home and has set aside her career aspirations to care for her son. His sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) is willing to stay in the background of the family as to allow her parents to tend to the needs of her brother. Now Auggie is gearing up to enter a middle school, which has been a slight contention for the young boy’s parents.
At his new school, Auggie is greeted by the affable Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), who quickly establishes that it’s more than okay to mock his name. The shy child is introduced to fellow students Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a nice athletic kid; Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), a young actress eager to list her various TV and commercial credits; and Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a two-faced aristocratic brat who is kind to adults and cruel to his fellow children. Despite the efforts of supportive teachers like Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), Auggie is struggling to fit in and find friends in his new surroundings.
To see where any of this is going doesn’t require a lot of imagination, but this aspect of Wonder works well because Tremblay is able to bring his youthful charms to the character of Auggie. Tremblay is quite adept at nailing his punchlines, and there are a number of moments in Wonder where there sadness of situations are defused with a well-timed and effective joke. The early sadness and dejection that Auggie experiences is never dwelled upon too much because Chbosky injects lively moments where the outcast child drifts away into his mind, characters from Star Wars appearing as he’s forced to confront ugly and unbearable moments. Sadly, these brisk moments of levity that work so well early on fade from Wonder around the halfway mark and the film does suffer in spurts from that point onward.
Wonder begins to struggle when it gets sidetracked with a number of subplots varying in perspective from character to character. A lengthy diversion into the perspective of Via establishes the sacrifices of a sibling struggling with a lack of parental attention. It’d be just fine but the story extends further to include a best friend who suddenly become distant, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), joining theater club at school, and her first boyfriend (Nadji Jeter). But the trio of male screenwriters (Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne) struggle when focused on the voice of a teenage girl. Less effective diversion focus on the friends of the siblings, with moments peeking into the lives of Jack Will and Miranda but time constraints ensure that these aren’t going to feel thoroughly fleshed out as they may have in a novel.
Sometimes the twists and turns of the story are a bit jarring, bordering on overkill in one particular moment. For the most part, though, Wonder has its heart in the right place. This is a story about being kind to others. It focuses on a warm family dynamic, one that’s not free from conflict but consists of people who love and support each other. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts elevate their parental roles with warm performances that makes some of the dialogue that is worded like an inspirational poster sound naturalistic. There will be plenty of tears shed in the theaters across the country as Wonder is a tear-jerker that lays it on heavy early and often. It’s a film that suffers from a number of structural problems that are amplified by those aforementioned subplots, and yet the film still works for the most part. Wonder can be frustrating at times because it gives you a glimpse of moments that are brilliant and they’re set aside for a more straightforward weepy tale.