Wonder – 2017

Director Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad & Chbosky based upon the book by R.J. Palacio
Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Sonia Braga, Millie Davis, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Danielle Rose Russell

When I was about 5 years old, in kindergarten, I made a friend named Eric. He and I literally just spent time in recess together and thought it might be fun to play after school. Eric was to walk at home with a teenage girl – a friend of the family – who was coming from the local High School to meet us.

She arrived at the school with another girl, her friend, who laughed and joked a lot. Before we started for his home, Eric decided to run from them in some manic form of tag in the wide open school yard. Instinctively I started running too. The friend of the family started chasing Eric, so her friend volunteered:

“You go get Eric. I’ll get the ugly one.”

I fell on the ground within three or four steps of this when I realized that I was not Eric.  And I was never going to be. The girl tagged me with her hands then. I didn’t feel that one.

I carried this event with me. I hauled it around like luggage. In some ways, it’s extra weight made me sensitive to other comments about my looks, which I went ahead and added that to my load. I let this shape me into a person who desperately wanted to be known as something other than “the ugly one.” It pushed some personality traits to the fore, and dragged others into the background.

One of the things I became really good at was reading people. I could tell a lot about someone based on where their eyes went after we were introduced.

I did find that I had a lot less social courage when it came to others who were less fortunate. I didn’t want to stand up for them, because I felt I had no leg to stand on. I was certain that I was on the edge of being thrown into the group of kids who were always teased for being “special.” Even the kids with seemingly no visual faults had a hard time facing up to bullies. There was no magic words back then. There never seemed to be an adult around to referee when someone said something cruel. I don’t know where I would have found that courage. It just took years to develop on its own.

If only this movie and book had been around then.

 “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.” 

It would be one thing if Wonder taught us the value of forging ahead through rough waters. If it only taught kids and adults to be considerate would be amazing. This film does it one better. We get everyone’s perspective and if we pay attention, we have a chance to realize that everyone has a burden to bear.

Wonder is a wise film. It’s simple, heartfelt and not subtle at all. Unless you consider listening a form of subtlety. Even if you’re not paying close attention the message of the story is hard to miss. Indeed, it’s hard to not agree with.

August Pullman (Tremblay) is a 5th Grade boy with a facial deformity, which he has mandibulofacial dysotosis and a cleft palate. I was born with the latter. His parents worked with him to make the decision to join a private school. The story starts with his visit to the school for a tour, before the first day.

On that day he makes an enemy and a friend. He doesn’t realize this, of course, until much has happened.

Where this film succeeds is in its simple multi-sided approach to the story. By dividing the story into perspectives, we are allowed the privilege of adjusting our judgement to fit the procurement of new facts. The film gives the wisdom of acknowledging that with an understanding other people’s side of the story, we can go a long way into understanding why Mr. Browne’s (Diggs) first precept is a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer:

When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.

There is an inherent amount of grace to showing simple kindness. This is something that Auggie’s Principal Mr. Tushman (the marvelously understated Mandy Patinkin) expresses effortlessly.

Auggie has a tough road in front of him. Not only does he need to learn to navigate the complex form of relationships of an “ordinary kid,” he also must look beyond the bullying he gets from the simple fact that his mere existence is a medical wonder augmented by over two dozen surgeries.

The reason is, his sister Olivia (Vidovic) is undergoing some pretty big issues, too. Her friend Miranda (Russell) has recently drifted away, and she recently lost the biggest fan that she had, in her grandmother (Braga).

This is just the tip of the Rashomon iceberg.

The simple story is augmented by some spectacular performances. Tremblay continues to show (this time through incredibly real prosthetics) a range that most actors years older could not touch.

As Olivia and Auggie’s mother, Isabel, this may be Julia Roberts’ finest acting performance. She is in command of the logic and completely beholden to the heart of her character. I didn’t know she had this kind of ability, Erin Brockovich notwithstanding.

Owen Wilson is just the right touch as Nate Pullman. He’s a simple, loving man who wants everyone in his family to succeed and to feel loved. Let’s just say Marley and Me was a warm up for this role.

Mandy Patinkin. What is possible to say about him by now? His skill is only exceeded by his ability to pick material and roles that are absolutely genuine to him. It’s hard to imagine this film succeeding without him, even if he had a limited role.

As “Via” Vidovic is a key player here, too. She does an admirable job presenting someone who understands her problems don’t have to be the biggest thing to take a toll. Her loving, but challenging relationship with her brother brings a depth that enriches both characters.

Chbosky once more (as he did in The Perks of Being a Wallflower) shows that he can navigate complex thought and actions in relatively simple, short strokes. His propensity is to show that no human is beyond redemption bodes well for this ultimately optimistic take on growing beyond what you are right now.

His choice to make Summer, Jack Will and Miles (Davis, Jupe and Breitkopf) more than one note characters gives the actors more to do than most directors would give peripheral child performers. They show they are ultimately up to the task.

The only time the film stumbles is when looking to find someone to blame for all of that teasing. There is a ham-handed exchange between Tushman, two parents and a child that might have gone better had they put actors more worthy of being counter to Patinkin as the adults. The result feels like we’re witnessing an awkard form of shadowboxing.

There is also a fight scene that comes out of nowhere that feels forced and unnecessary. If they’d given the kids something more clever to overcome, it would have been more respectful to their abilities.

My complaints are trivial compared to what this movie gets right. I have to be honest, I was crying from about the 10 minute mark through to the end. My oldest daughter and her friend were in a constant state of tears, too. My youngest even found a lot of this felt true to the challenges she goes through. This film is honest, painful, but mostly it’s optimistic. This is my favorite film of the year and it is the kind of story that goes a long way to improving the human experience. And if my view of the film is colored by my personal experiences, I wish I could have used these colors years ago.

(****1/2 out of *****)



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