PLOT A young boy with an unusual face tries to fit in at a new school.
CAST Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic
RATED PG (bullying and some cruel talk)
BOTTOM LINE A solid adaptation of a novel with a message of kindness and empathy seems resonant.
August “Auggie” Pullman, the young hero of R.J. Palacio’s children’s novel “Wonder,” never describes his face. Only after several chapters of getting to know this smart, funny fifth-grader do we get the unvarnished truth from his older sister, Via: Little Auggie looks like he’s been melted in a flame, eyes resting near his cheekbones, nose fleshy, skin waxy, all the result of a medical condition at birth. Her parents have decided to treat Auggie as if he’s normal, Via says. “And the problem is, he’s not.”
Well, he is and he isn’t — and that’s the heart of the matter in both Palacio’s book and Stephen Chbosky’s sensitive film adaptation. “Wonder,” directed and co-written by Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), introduces us to Auggie, played by Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), on his first day of attending a new middle school. When Auggie removes the space helmet he prefers to wear in public and we see his altered features, our first thought is that the world is not a welcoming place. What the film asks is: Couldn’t we make it one?
Much of “Wonder” unfolds as you might expect. Auggie is tormented by a rich-kid bully, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), but finds a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe, “Suburbicon”). Loyalties will be tested and battles will be fought. As in the book, though, some of the most meaningful scenes put us in the shoes of other characters. We learn that Via, for instance, played by a very good Izabela Vidovic, essentially raised herself while her parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, both judiciously used) poured their energy into Auggie.
There’s been some criticism of Chbosky for choosing Tremblay, an established star, instead of an actor with a real craniofacial condition, to play Auggie. There is, however, no overstating Tremblay’s innate talent and on-screen appeal. Something about that kid just tugs at the parent inside you — particularly his voice, which can so piercingly express anger and hurt. It’s difficult to imagine this movie without him.
In the end, the message of “Wonder” is fairly simple: It doesn’t really cost anything to be tolerant. Or as Auggie tells us in an apocryphal but memorable quote: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting hard battles.”