2017, PG, 113 min. Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Starring Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Mandy Patinkin.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 17, 2017
For many kids, the middle school years are situated somewhere between the ninth circle of hell and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The bullies, the crushes, the teachers, those other bullies laying in wait for you over behind the hedge, and, lest we forget, dodgeball – it all adds up to one of the most disconcerting times in a young person’s life. In the case of Stranger Things you can take that practically literally, but Wonder, based on R.J. Palacio’s bestseller of the same name, takes a different tack that, while altogether all right, still manages to be overfamiliar in too many ways. That said, judging from the preview audience I saw it with, the film is being marketed to kids and their parents, and as such, it’s well worth mom and dad’s hard-earned sawbuck for the implicit lessons it stresses. Be kind, especially to the seemingly strange ones who might not look like you.
Comparisons to 1985’s Mask are all but inevitable given that Wonder’s beleaguered protagonist, the brand-new middle schooler Auggie (Tremblay). He suffers from a facial deformity, Treacher Collins syndrome, that marks him as an easy target for junior high thugs and nitwits. Having undergone over a dozen facial surgeries over the course of his adolescence, Auggie’s found shelter in his love of science, Star Wars, and in particular, a pint-sized NASA space helmet he wears to ward off the ever-present stares of both children and adults. Mom (Roberts) and Dad (Wilson, particularly warm here) have homeschooled Auggie up to this point but decide it’s time for their littlest astronaut to set the controls for the heart of the sun and so enroll him in the public school system.
Predictably, things do not go well. Although Principal Tushman (Patinkin, all twinkly eyes and bushy beard) selects three students to show Auggie the ropes before school proper begins, the only real friendship he develops is with “good egg” Jack Will (Jupe), and even that gets concussed along the way. Truthfully, Auggie’s only real friend is his older sister Via (Vidovic), who has her own relationship issues but always makes room for her little brother.
While I haven’t read the source material, Wonder – possibly for the benefit of its younger audience – telegraphs way too much of its story far too quickly. If you’re old enough to have seen all those Eighties ABC Afterschool Specials, or the aforementioned Mask, you’ll already be overfamiliar with this movie’s narrative. It’s more than a tad manipulative, but there’s also a moral sweetness at the heart of the film that acts as a solid takeaway for kid viewers. While it’s not exactly wonderful per se, its message is strong and clear and true: Bullies are jerkwads, true friendship is measured through word and deed, and Mandy Patinkin makes for an awesome Dumbledore/Santa Claus hybrid.