Wonder tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a kid born with a freak recessive gene mutation and subsequently put through a couple dozen corrective surgeries before he’s even in the fifth grade. The movie covers his entire fifth-grade year, his very first in a school with other kids following a childhood in home school. Jacob Tremblay plays our lead character (under thick prosthetics and makeup), and Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts play his parents, while Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs respectively play his new principal and homeroom teacher.
Given this premise, this cast, and this release date, the film was clearly made and marketed as an awards contender. And this easily could’ve been just another bit of disposable Oscar-bait. But it isn’t. It’s actually something a lot more rare and beautiful.
To be clear, the proceedings do get sappy and contrived at times, often laughably so. Right off the bat, for example, we have to wonder how this white middle-class family can afford so many corrective surgeries for their son and live in a New York brownstone AND send their two kids to private school. All on the income of a single working parent, I might add, while the mother has spent the past decade at home teaching her kid. And that’s just for starters — as the movie keeps going, we see a lot of predictable and cliched moments in between the cloying voice-overs and obnoxious Star Wars sight gags.
And what is all of this for? Well, it’s obviously a movie about accepting others for who they are and what they can do, rather than how they look. It’s a movie about how extremely difficult and necessary it can be to make friends and keep them. And to be clear, these messages are very clearly and explicitly designed for the context of grade school and high school. Yes, I suppose you might be able to read this as a metaphor for sexual/racial inclusion, if you wanted to dislocate a few limbs and fingers making that much of a stretch.
That’s when it finally hit me that I was looking at this movie all wrong. As a deep and profound awards-bait movie made for adults, it didn’t make any sense. But as a moral message crafted for kids and young teens, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s really kind of genius.
For every time when this movie gets all saccharine and cliched, there’s another time when this movie acts against the grain in some bold and impressive ways. We see these kids play with their food, hold burping contests, and help each other cheat on tests. We see them shout at each other, refuse to speak to each other, and even physically come to blows with each other. It really is quite astounding how the characters get to be more developed and authentic as the plot unfolds. Thus the movie can get away with the more cliched moments because it’s balanced out with so many moments of genuine emotional hardship. What’s even more impressive is that the filmmakers somehow toned down the more extreme moments to be kid-friendly without sacrificing an iota of the emotional (or visceral) punch.
Auggie is of course the prime source of the movie’s pathos, since he has to learn how to coexist with children too young to learn (as he tragically already has) that nobody goes through life without picking up scars. But we also see the other kids talk behind his back and make rude remarks to his face, unaware of what an impact their words and actions have. Easily the single greatest — and most important! — thing that this movie does is to clearly illustrate how even the smallest word or action can leave a significant impact. Time and time again, we see how the characters are uplifted by a single gesture, or utterly destroyed by hearing someone else say the wrong word. This is a huge part of how bullying is portrayed in such an authentic and hard-hitting way that will absolutely resonate with kids.
(Side note: One of the most devastating scenes for Auggie happens during Halloween. The character is dressed in a full-body costume with a mask that covers his entire face, and the movie still portrays the character’s heartfelt pain in visceral detail without a word spoken. I don’t know how the filmmakers pulled that off, but kudos.)
And of course that’s just what we see with Auggie and his peers. We also get glimpses of Diggs’ character trying to create a nurturing environment for his students without stepping on any toes. Patinkin’s character tries to tamp down on bullying in school while dealing with willfully ignorant parents who insist their kids could do no wrong. Auggie’s parents are trying to raise two kids when one of them demands so much more attention than the other. Which brings me to my personal favorite case in point, Auggie’s older sister (Olivia “Via” Pullman, played by Izabela Vidovic).
Via has a lot of sibling jealousy going on, given how pretty much everything has been put on hold to care for little brother since the day he was born. That said, while Via may resent how Auggie is always the center of attention, she knows and understands how much he hates to be in that position. They love each other and support each other, and while Via may occasionally lash out because nobody will ever make time for her, she’s had a lifetime of practice at keeping that bottled up. For better or worse.
Moreover, Via had two coping mechanisms for getting the attention she needed. One of them was her grandmother, who recently passed away. The other one was Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), her best friend since kindergarten, who’s mysteriously stopped talking to Via since the day school started. We do eventually learn what’s going on with Miranda, but there’s no way I’m getting into that here. Suffice to say that Via and Auggie both feel like social outcasts, deeply hurt by those they thought were their best friends. Even if Auggie’s case is far more severe, that doesn’t make Via’s problems any less real or painful. It’s a sweet little bonding moment when the two of them realize that all they have is each other.
Tremblay further proves that he’s a bona fide powerhouse in spite of his youth, and Vidovic turns in a starmaking performance. In point of fact, all of the child actors and young adults in the cast are uncommonly, exceptionally good. Credit is also due to Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts, both of whom turn in their best work in years. Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin each get very little time, I’m sorry to say, but they have such powerful screen presence that they’re able to leave a strong and instant impression all the same.
Overall, Wonder threads the needle to hit a rare and difficult balance: While this was definitely made for children, it’s heavy and intelligent enough to keep the adults involved. It’s a movie that directly addresses kids and young teens without talking down to them, taking it for granted that kids are not immune to the slings and arrows of fate and are perhaps more capable of enduring them than we realize. In point of fact, one of the film’s cornerstone messages (“precepts”, if you will) is the message that even at such a young age, kids may be suffering through more than meets the eye and could be in need of a helping hand.
While “PG” has come to mean “Practically G”, this is absolutely a true PG movie. Its authentic and potent messages of friendship and communication absolutely demand to be seen by kids and discussed with their parents afterward. If you’re under the age of 16 or you know anyone who’s under the age of 16, I strongly recommend that you give the film a good hard look.