Wonder: Break Out the Tissues and the Awards

Wonder Plot Summary:

Based on the best-selling novel, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has been home schooled his whole life on account of his facial disfigurement. Now about to enter fifth grade, Auggie is going to a real school for the first time as he and his family face the challenges of Auggie fitting in together.

To be fair, I never saw the Chris Evans film Gifted, directed by Marc Webb, but it seemed like a whatever movie. Maybe it was good, I don’t know. I only bring this up because Wonder could have easily come and gone just as that film did. In a recent Trailer Tuesday column, our Editor-in-Chief (Bill Bodkin) described these trailers as paint by numbers inspirational with a potential for Lifetime movie level quality. Those criticisms were completely justified. Where Wonder escapes this trap is because of director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who also had a hand in penning the script. He injects a unique style that makes Wonder more than just your average tear-jerker.

The emotional lynchpin of this film is obviously ten-year-old August (“Auggie”), who because of several birth defects corrected by surgeries, leaves his face disfigured. He’s never been to a real school, but that’s all about to change. Middle school can be tough under any circumstances, but add in facial scars, yadda, yadda, yadda, and we’re off and running.

After his show stopping performance in 2015’s Room, where he barely missed out on an Oscar nomination, Jacob Tremblay continues to prove he’s the second coming of Haley Joel Osment. This kid can flat out act. With the make-up, you could argue it’s easier for Tremblay to invoke sympathy, but the character is more fleshed out through his long voice overs. An over reliance on narration can certainly be bad in film, but Tremblay makes it work. He’s like an experienced public speaker who beautifully gets you into the mindset of this young person.

It goes without saying that Tremblay’s performance rips through your heart. As it is most of the time in middle school, Auggie’s mood is constantly changing. Tremblay is so engaging at being happy, you really get pissed whenever somebody says something mean to him. Whenever he makes a new friend, you are almost relieved. Whenever he loses a friend, you get frustrated. That’s when you know both actor and film are working at full strength.

Where this movie is truly brilliant though is how Chbosky cleverly tells the story in vignettes, focusing on a character’s point of view. The ripple effect Auggie has on everyone else is almost more the story than Auggie himself. They are just as compelling, and at times, even more so.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the entire movie is Auggie’s older sister, Via, played by Izabela Vidovic. She’s barely anything in the first twenty minutes, but that’s the point. You are so emotionally invested in Auggie, that you forget there’s this whole other person in the family. Even though their parents, Nate and Isabel, played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts respectfully, are excellent parents, they have to spend so much energy on Auggie that they have no time for the normal problems of a teenager. Vidovic captures this beautifully.

Via is also the perfect person to latch onto. She knows the burden her parents have, so she never wants to give them anything extra to worry about. This obviously comes pouring out eventually, but her pure strength and patience is also part of the wonder (I went there). They also give her fantastic subplots that include a falling out with her best friend, Miranda, played by Danielle Rose Russell. You learn about her backstory and why she dropped Via as a friend, which is also extremely well done. There’s also a very powerful flashback between Via and her grandmother (Sonia Braga), who she was very close with. If you were ever close to a grandparent, that scene will make you weep, Geez Louise.

The movie obviously relies heavily on kid actors. At times they were a little iffy, as were the early Harry Potter films, but overall, superb. All the side characters serve their roles well. Most notably is Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who plays one of the more pivotal roles as Auggie’s friend. He is the prototypical fifth grader who wants to be friends with Auggie, but still wants to impress the cool kids. His arc was seamless.

One of those cool kids is Julian, played by Bryce Gheisar, who’s the primary bully. This is where the movie falters. Auggie adjusts so well to being in school, that by the third act, the conflicts are pretty much flat. They’ll pepper in a random situation here and there, but they feel kind of pathetic. It’s almost like a football game that has been hyped up all week that was supposed to come down to the wire, but by the third quarter, one team has already won. Auggie wins early. They even bring in Julian’s awful parents to spice up the prejudice, but the mother (Crystal Lowe) felt like a straight up Saturday morning cartoon villain.

My other big complaint (and this will get me in trouble) is a subplot with a dog that stops the movie short. Okay, I get it. We all love dogs, but this was completely unnecessary. It also comes at a time when the mother and daughter were really having it out. It plays like a lazy plot device that resets everything. That was bad writing.

The movie is also plagued with very on the nose dialogue, but for the most part it felt honest. Even though the final scene was predictable, and I was hoping they would go in a different direction, the last narration is excellent, so I’ll let it slide. The only bizarre line of dialogue involved a machine gun, which got a weird vibe. There’s no way I’m the only reviewer who’s pointed this out.

Despite some of the falters, this is about as perfect as it gets to see with a family. If you get bothered by the cynicism social media brings, this movie is like a truck load of positive energy spilling over you. I almost felt like I needed to watch some Batman v Superman after this, geez. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are also fantastic, and completely sink their teeth into this. Owen Wilson plays the most likable dad in the history of dads.

If you were fearful of the Lifetime factor, don’t be. Stephen Chbosky adds layers to this that I wasn’t expecting. You will walk out weepy, but happy you saw it.

My only real complaint with Auggie is who his favorite Star Wars character is. Seriously? That guy? Come on, Auggie!

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.

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