‘Wonder’ is designed for the express purpose of making you cry, and co-writer/director Peter Chbosky (‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’) is prepared to suck those tears out of your face by any means possible. The movie is an assault on your heartstrings to the extent that viewing the big maudlin exercise in manipulation can feel exhausting.
This movie is definitely only for those who like to bring a hankie the theater and will not work even for an instant for anyone with a cynical disposition. However, taken on its own sincere and melodramatic terms, it has some charm. It’s a sweet little movie difficult to hate if you have even the tiniest ounce of empathy in your heart. It’s also not particularly interesting or original, but as far as tearjerkers go, you could do far worse. Think of it like ‘Marley and Me’, but without the death or the dog. (Owen Wilson is retained, though.)
Based on the YA novel by R.J. Palacio, ‘Wonder’ is the story of a special boy and his special family. That boy is Auggie (Jacob Tremblay under a mountain of makeup), a precocious and wise kid who was born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, which gives his face a scarred and distorted appearance despite decades of plastic surgery. Until the film starts, he’s been home-schooled and shielded by his parents (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts), often choosing to wear a space helmet in public so that no one can see his face. But he’s middle school aged now, and the parents put him into a public school knowing that he’ll face bullying, hoping that he’s strong enough to withstand it and find friends. It’s tough at first, but fortunately he slowly finds a best friend and others follow, though not without difficulty. His sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has her own challenges, growing up constantly in the shadow of her brother and having recently also lost her best friend. In fact, everyone in the movie faces challenges. That’s the whole point of the story.
As nakedly manipulative as ‘Wonder’ might be, it comes packaged with a pleasing message important for kids and often just as important for their parents to relearn. While the bulk of the story follows Auggie and his struggles to win over the world through his inner strength and beauty, filmmaker Chbosky often diverts and doubles back to show the perspectives of other characters. It starts with the sister and, by the end, almost every member of the cast gets a sequence from his or her point of view (other than Owen Wilson, who is assigned the thankless kind-hearted and wise-cracking dad duty throughout). Why? To show that everyone has their own struggles and everyone has reasons for their behavior, both good and bad. The film is a plea for empathy, exploring the ways in which everyone we meet has an inner life that we’ll never know and rarely matches up with their exterior.
If that all sounds a bit pat and heavy-handed, well, it is. There’s even something mildly exploitative about using the physical disability of a child as a metaphor for the ways the world only takes us at face value. Chbosky’s script isn’t exactly subtle. Characters speak the themes of the story loudly and proudly throughout. However, it has some poignancy, especially when Chbosky takes the time to explore why the film’s requisite bully behaves so badly. It’s a film of tremendous heart, using candy-colored bright cinematography, pop ballad montages, gentle humor, and big weepy melodrama to force feelings into the audience with a purpose. The film does capture something of the struggle of the human condition, done in such a way that will leave a mark on everyone who views it right in the feels. It’s moving, with strong performances throughout that add to the teary impact. The movie works.
Chbosky’s storytelling techniques are forcefully unsubtle. The movie will irk audiences who don’t easily find themselves getting weepy in a theater or who consider this sort of family-friendly empathetic messaging a bit much. ‘Wonder’ won’t blow anyone away by telling a story or sharing a message that feels fresh or original. However, the movie also doesn’t pretend to be something that it’s not. This is a fable, playing directly into well-worn territory because fables tend to carry messages worth repeating. It’s not perfect or even especially memorable. However, its heart is firmly in the right place. The movie serves up sentiment worth getting sappy about.