Starting school is a tough enough time for everyone, but it’s all the more tougher for young Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has been home-schooled until grade five because he has a severe facial difference as a result of a genetic disorder. Now, his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), having decided to enrol him in a private school for the sake of socialisation, Auggie, a bright kid who likes science, Star Wars, and Halloween, must negotiate life outside the protective bubble of his family for the first time ever.
Adapted from R.J. Palacio’s novel by director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallfower), Wonder traces a year in the life of not just the precocious and eminently likable Auggie, but also the people around him – we get separate threads from the point of view of his 15 year old sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who feels like she’s always coming second to her special needs brother; his new best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who likes Auggie but bends to the pressure of schoolyard bullying; his mother, who put her life plans on hold to care for him, and more.
But it’s Auggie who is the centre of the film, a smart, charming kid bearing up the weight of being visibly and permanently outside of the norm as best he can. He is, of course, not unaware of how other people see him; “Why do I have to be so ugly?” he wails at one point, and it’d take a particularly hard heart not to be moved by the poor kid’s plight.
Indeed, Wonder expertly aims for the heart at every turn. It’s openly manipulative stuff, but nonetheless effective, even if it occasionally strays past the point of plausibility or taste (there’s a bit of business with the family dog seemingly inserted because it’s been a good 15 minutes since we’ve had a bit of a cry). The whole thing is buoyed by a great cast, a wonderfully warm tone, and a generally optimistic attitude; yes, there are bullies and anxieties and life can deal you a stunningly unfair hand, but Wonder takes place in a world where underdogs are championed and goodness of heart trumps social advantage – there’s value in spending time in a world like that, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.