A mother and her three-year-old son were waiting in line to buy ice cream at a shop in New York City. The boy noticed a girl with facial birth defects, and the mom, not wanting her son to react badly to seeing the girl, tried to take him out of the situation quickly, but ended up making it worse. Soon thereafter, she heard Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” playing and was inspired to write a novel about a child with craniofacial syndrome. The author is R. J. Palacio; her book is Wonder.
The book was very successful and was soon a staple of school reading lists. Wonder has now been turned into a full-length feature film by writer/director Stephen Chbosky. He is best known as the author of the coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and for writing the subsequent screenplay and directing the film. Chbosky also wrote the screenplay for the 2005 film Rent and, with Evan Spiliotopoulos, Disney’s 2017 live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. He was co-creator, executive producer, and writer of the television series “Jericho,” which aired on CBS from 2006 to 2008.
Wonder is a touching and inspirational film about a young boy, Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with severe facial deformities and has endured 27 operations on his face over his young life. There is a bulletin board in Auggie’s bedroom, where he displays his hospital wristbands. He has been home-schooled by his doting mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). Owen Wilson plays his loving (and humorous) father, Nate, while Auggie’s older and oft-neglected sister, Via, short for Olivia, is played by Izabela Vidovic.
Oftentimes while out in public, Auggie wears a NASA space helmet, so he can enjoy things without people staring at his face. The movie starts with the discussion between Isabel and Nate about whether Auggie should start middle school. Isabel is for it, saying that the start of middle school is a good point for Auggie to be mainstreamed. Nate is worried that the expected ridicule and bullying of Auggie will be too much for Auggie to handle.
A Strong Child with Loving Parents
An emotional early scene, and one not just for parents whose kid is a little different, but for most parents, is when Isabel and Nate look on from the school’s sidewalk as their child wades into the groups of children for his first day of classes. Roberts plays this scene with a strong, quiet emotive force as she looks on with intense hopefulness and concern. Wilson, also concerned, provides good support as a father and husband.
As Auggie walks into the school, kids stare at him and comment about his face. He narrates his walk and says he understands why kids are staring at him, and that he would stare too if in their situation. The kids also send negative expressions and comments in his direction. This is where we see Auggie’s super power: positive messaging and imaging. He imagines that he is doing well and people are supporting him, including his friend Chewbacca from Star Wars.
Auggie usually walks with his head down when at school or among people he’s not familiar with. He says you can learn a lot about people from their shoes, including the Adidas tennis shoes his supportive homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, wears. Browne is played by Daveed Diggs, who joined the cast just days after finishing his award-winning run in the Broadway play Hamilton. Diggs does well in his first major film role. In the movie, Mr. Browne loves to teach precepts for living, including stressing kindness.
The Power of a Few Good Friends
Unfortunately, the school kids, including Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and Amos (Ty Consiglio), haven’t learned the kindness lessons very well and are continual tormentors of Auggie with both written notes and verbal insults. Many of the students won’t touch him because they think they’ll catch the plague. For a good part of the movie, Auggie endures the taunts and insults, often eating alone at the lunch table. Then he becomes friends with Jack Will (Noah Jupe), whom Chbosky said in an interview with Entertainment Central was a pivotal character. Another early friend is Summer (Millie Davis). Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) is also somewhat supportive when not talking about her burgeoning career as a child actor. All the kids play their parts extremely well. Chbosky said he is very proud of them and that his goal was to put together the best kid cast since Stand by Me.
Auggie enjoys and excels in his science class with Ms. Petosa. Petosa is portrayed with charismatic effect by Ali Liebert. When a two-member class science project is assigned, one of the mean kids tries to sidle up to Auggie as his partner, but Jack Will manages to block him. Auggie and Jack put together a very interesting project; the mean kids’ project does not quite go as planned.
There were some very tough days for Auggie, a few of which saw him not eating or talking much at home. His perceptive parents picked up on this and broke through his barriers to give him more love and support. Tremblay displayed his fine acting talents as Auggie rode a roller coaster of low and high points.
Tender Family Drama
Some of the most touching dramatic scenes in the film were between Auggie and his mom, Isabel. At a low point, Auggie asks why he has to be so ugly. Isabel answers, “You are not ugly,” and he responds that she has to say that because she’s his mom. Isabel softly replies that she knows him the best, so her words should count the most. Both Tremblay’s and Roberts’s talents add tenderness and believability to these scenes.
A disability or illness doesn’t just affect the afflicted. This was where Wonder went to a higher level of storytelling intelligence. A family is a unit, and when one family member is hurting, it sends ripple effects through the others. Nate at one point breaks down and starts to cry at night while alone in the dining room. Auggie hears him from the top of the steps and goes downstairs to comfort him. Although Wilson is mainly known for his cool guy and comedic roles, he plays Nate with love and humor, adding to the story’s inspirational message.
The movie has various sections that focus on other family members and the cast. These narrated sections provide additional insights into the characters, their lives, and motivations. One breakthrough of the movie, according to Chbosky, is the Via section, which details how she feels overlooked because Auggie is always taking up all of their parent’s attention. Additional pressure is put on Via after her best friend, Miranda, starts giving her the cold shoulder after summer break. Both Vidovic and Danielle Rose Russell, respectively, do an outstanding job with showing the audience who their characters are as they explore the ups and downs of life.
Mandy Patinkin plays the headmaster of Beecher Prep Middle School, Mr. Tushman. Tushman tries to put Auggie at ease in a pre-semester visit by telling him all the different ways people have made fun of his name over the years. Tushman is kind and supportive, but can be tough when needed. The headmaster also recruited a few kids in the summer to act as friendly guides for Auggie as he transitioned into the school. This and a few other segments were shown as flashbacks including one of a young Via portrayed by Maccie, Chbosky’s daughter. Every school should be headed by a Tushman. Patinkin did a splendid job with the role.
Although Wonder can make a person a little weepy-eyed, this reviewer included, it also has some very nice touches of humor in it. We even get a Julia Roberts trademark laugh. Wonder illustrates why we should all be kinder to one another. That although new endeavors can be very rough at times, if we persevere with a positive spirit there can oftentimes be a happy ending.
Entertainment Central was also invited to a screening of Wonder at which Pittsburgh native, Chbosky gave a post-screening talk and answered audience questions. He told the audience about a few “Easter eggs” he put into the movie including that the novel’s author R.J. Palacio sat in the row behind the Pullman family at a school function scene. Chbosky also mentioned that there is an ornament on the family’s Christmas tree that was also on the tree in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For more about Chbosky, the making of Wonder, and another “Easter egg” see our Stephen Chbosky story. Wonder opens nationwide on Friday, November 17.
‘Wonder’ photos courtesy of Dale Robinette and Lionsgate Films.
Story by Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central.