Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Premise: A fifth grader (Jacob Tremblay) with a facial deformity enrolls in elementary school and struggles to make friends. His determination inspires his classmates and family to be better people.
What Works: One of the genres that has faded in contemporary Hollywood is the family-friendly drama. Movies of earlier decades like Mask or The Karate Kid or The Sandlot aren’t a big part of Hollywood’s release slate anymore. Wonder is exceptional in that it is a rare kind of movie from a Hollywood studio but it’s also a very good example of this kind of filmmaking. Wonder dramatizes a year in the life of Augie Pullman, a boy whose face was disfigured by a genetic disorder and has been reconstructed through multiple surgeries. After being home schooled for several years, Augie begins attending classes with his peers. The filmmakers do an excellent job with this material and they take advantage of the fear of being the new kid in school and compounding it with Augie’s physical disfigurement. One of the most admirable qualities of Wonder is that the filmmakers don’t overplay their hand. The material is inherently dramatic and there is no need to turn to histrionics. The filmmakers emphasize empathy over sentimentality and that is the other outstanding quality of this film. Wonder is full of complex characters who struggle with their individual challenges and the moviemakers allow the audience to empathize with each of them. The movie resists oversimplified caricature and attempts to find the good in people. Wonder’s success is partly due to its terrific cast. Jacob Tremblay plays Augie and Tremblay is authentically a fifth grader but he’s never too precocious the way children in the movies often are. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are cast as Augie’s mom and dad and they effectively embody the way parents vicariously experience the pain of their children. Especially impressive is Izabela Vidovic as Augie’s high school age sister. Because of her brother’s condition she is sometimes rendered invisible and Vidovic plays teenage angst in a way that is credible and not obnoxious. Noah Jupe is also notable as Augie’s friend; the boys go through ups and downs in their relationship and Jupe’s performance possesses a lot of subtlety.
What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of Wonder are so single minded about proving that the world is a fundamentally good place that they become adverse to any kind of conflict. That comes to hurt the movie because all drama is fundamentally about conflict. That does not have to mean human cruelty but satisfying stories do require characters who struggle with obstacles. Wonder introduces various conflicts but they are rarely followed through. The moviemakers downplay the clashes between students and family members, resolving every plot development too easily. Among Wonder’s greatest strengths is its empathy for all of the characters but that becomes a detriment as the movie dispels any tension before it even gets started. That impacts the plotting, as Wonder becomes less a sustained story with rising tensions and more a collage of anecdotes from these people’s lives. The movie doesn’t have much of a shape nor does it offer the catharsis that’s possible in a great drama because the stakes are never very high.
Bottom Line: Wonder is a nice movie with a generous spirit. The film is lightweight and it shies away from conflict to a fault but it is also a genuinely feel good picture that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
Episode: #678 (December 17, 2017)