The word ‘wonder’ can be defined as many things: a feeling of admiration; a remarkable thing or person; a curious desire to know something in particular. It is no coincidence, then, that Stephen Chbosky’s new film is the embodiment of all of these interpretations – a feel-good mish-mash of all things unusual and fantastic and inspirational.
Ten-year-old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has Treacher Collins syndrome – a genetic fluke which is characterised by deformities of the ears, eyes, cheekbones and chin – and as such, has been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts) until fifth grade.
Now it’s time for Auggie to brave real school – a place where he can no longer hide under his favourite space helmet and must deal with new, real kids, who have many questions, and not all of them nice. (Wonder: verb, ‘desire to know something; feel curious’.)
The setup of the movie rings true to the R J Palacio novel it was adapted from. It follows the ten-year-old’s first year at real school, tracking the trajectory of not just Auggie, but demonstrating how this change to his life affects his mum, dad Nate (Owen Wilson), older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).
We also get a look into the lives of Auggie’s friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), and Via’s ex-bestie Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), as they’re also designated a first-person perspective throughout the film.
Despite Auggie not wanting to be stared at, the underlying theme that drives the narrative is that everyone in Wonder wants to be seen. Auggie wants his classmates to see beyond the scars, and Via wants the attention she desires from her mum but doesn’t get because she’s too preoccupied with Auggie, and Miranda’s drastic change of hair colour is a reaction to her parent’s divorce.
Wonder is sweet. So sweet. Too sweet, maybe. Films about disfigurements and overcoming adversity often run that dangerously thin knife edge, able to tip from warmly sentimental to mawkish with startling ease, dripping with saccharine and pushy with life lessons.
Yes, occasionally Wonder does lose itself to the latter. In real life, would school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), kicked out of school for bullying Auggie and his own pushy parents to answer to, later become one of the guys enthusiastically cheering him on despite the pair having no evidence of resolve in between? Probably not.
But despite its lack of realism, Wonder is a film that will warm your heart in the most sincerest of ways – there’s a reason why the film was shown for free on World Kindness Day. And it will definitely bring a tear to the eye of even the hardiest of people – during the press screening, at one point a child had audible trouble breathing through her sobs, and a grown man cried so hard his sleeves were sodden when the lights went up.
It’s gently didactic, and makes a great point about empathy: whether you’re the bully, the bullied, or the one who’s friend has gone cold, you can never be sure of the circumstances behind their choices.
Jacob Tremblay puts incredible feeling into his performance as Auggie, applying a sense of empathy way beyond what many his age can comprehend. A profound work of art, Wonder is not – but it will no doubt will hold a special place in the hearts of many.
Wonder is in UK cinemas on December 1, 2017.