When R.J. Palacio’s children’s book, Wonder, came out a few years ago it started a craze for the phrase “choose kind.” That’s a beautiful sentiment that is carried over to this wondrous and heartwarming movie, a rare feel-good live-action film for the whole family that is about who we are on the inside, a sweet story with a strong message about doing the right thing. Wonder is a film to cheer in these tough times.
As most kids’ fare is animated these days, Wonder plays to the sector like a breath of fresh air. It has its work cut out for it in competing directly for the family trade opposite Justice League on Friday and then Disney/Pixar’s terrific Coco five days later, but it deserves to find an audience. And the success of the book on which director Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne based their screenplay could help the want-to-see factor.
The story centers on August “Auggie” Pullman (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old kid just about to enter fifth grade at his new prep school. His life up to now has not been easy despite his generally sunny attitude: He was born with a craniofacial disorder, which puts him, for comparison, in the same category as the Eric Stoltz character in the 1985 movie, Mask. Twenty-seven surgeries later, Auggie sets off to first day of school, with concerned parents Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson watching his every move. A Star Wars fan who uses his spaceman helmet as a crutch now must face life — and the bully factor — without it as he makes his way toward a new phase of his life.
Predictably some kids don’t “choose kind” but make fun as kids often are wont to do. Nevertheless, after being isolated at lunch, he eventually manages to attract a friend who goes against the tide of some of the others and hangs out with Auggie. One gut-wrenching scene is set on Halloween, which naturally is Auggie’s favorite holiday since he gets to go in disguise. But, unrecognizable in his Scream mask, it doesn’t go well when he overhears some of the kids and their thoughtless remarks about him.
The movie follows Auggie, but it also focuses on what his uber-patient and loving parents go through emotionally, as well as his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who enters high school as the family member who has had to adjust her whole life to being the one who isn’t the center of attention. This aspect of the film is handled nicely, as is her relationship with former BFF (Miranda Danielle Rose Russell). The warm and wise principal of Auggie’s school provides a fine turn for Mandy Patinkin, who comes off as a class act in looking out for Auggie’s best interests. One scene in which he confronts a ringleader for the bullying is particularly effective when that kid’s parents turn out to be a big part of the problem.
Tremblay nails the lead role with the kind of self-assurance he showed in Room, and he earns both laughs and tears without ever begging for either. Roberts and Wilson are ideally cast here as well, and Chbosky, who proved he had a sensitive directorial touch with his own book and coming-of-age tale, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, knows exactly how to underplay this coming-of-a-younger-age story. Producers are Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman. Lionsgate opens the film wide on Friday.
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