Telling a sentimental story in film can be a somewhat tricky balancing act. Cool sophistication in these type of movies means that sometimes the point is lost, while obvious ‘heart on your sleeve’ often leads to cliché and well-worn tropes feeling hollow. Wonder is an attempt to translate a successful novel into an emotionally heart felt story about overcoming adversity and it works, really well! A movie bound to make you tear up and feel good. Why does it succeed where others fail is the subject of the rest of this review.
Auggie, who has been deformed since birth because of a genetic disorder, starts school for the first time. Having been home-schooled and having his only friends were his family. This means facing a big adjustment as he experiences both the cruelty and the kindness of his fellow students.
It’s worth saying initially that I’ve no experience with the novel Wonder by R. J. Palacio and so I can’t speak to its faithfulness. What I can speak to is a kind of oddity when experiencing emotions in movies. Sometimes the cynic in mean knows I’m being manipulated and will just switch off. Last year’s Lion had moments of that for example. But other times I just find myself swept away into joy or sadness and the critical eye just can’t help but be closed. Wonder is the right kind of emotional experience and I found myself with a full heart while watching it.
There are probably a number of different reasons for my emotional reaction (some of which might be worth psychologically unpacking) to the way in which Wonder portrays its story. It sounds a little horrible to say that the character with a deformity/disability is a bit of a mainstream movie staple. It might be horrible but no less true. What Wonder does differently is that it unpacks not just Auggie’s point of view but that of his mother, sister and their respective friends. It makes the story seem less one dimensional and while the focus is on the triumph and tragedy of our hero, the rest simply don’t exist as placeholders.
Often movies that pull on the heart strings fail in large part because the calibre of actor involved is not exactly great and are usually b-tier. Julia Roberts is something else as the Auggie’s mother, Isabel and her journey is probably the most interesting. Yet Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin and Izabela Vidovic offers solid work. Jacob Tremblay as Auggie has to carry the bulk of the film and he and fellow child actors do acceptable workmanlike but not standout work. It’s probably more believable that way, these aren’t kids necessarily in extraordinary circumstances like Tremblay performance in Room but still it works.
In the end though Wonder ultimately works because it’s honest, earnest and heartfelt. It’s not trying to change the world, just a smaller version of it. Things might end in some sense happily ever after in the movie but Auggie’s struggle as will his family and friend, will be continual. Now he just has support around him. It’s a story of cruelty and sadness, but also of hope and courage. All cliché words but with some emotional intangibles that make them work.
Wonder is not perfect though, and stumbles right at the end. It’s not a big thing but there is two distinct endings and the second one rings hollow. Not in the sense that it’s not plausible but more in that you invest emotionally in the first and have little to nothing left for the second. It’s a structural problem that might have been fixed by an editor. MY suspicion is it might be a legacy left over from the books.
‘Wonder’ Review Cheat Sheet:
Wonder is a surprisingly engaging and emotional experience that despite covering familiar territory feels fresh. Its casting, and direction make an honest and earnest experience that only stumbles in its conclusion. A triumphant tear-jerker in the most meaningful sense.
- Great performances
- Clever Direction that offers new perspectives.
- Heartfelt and earnest means emotional responses are guaranteed.
- Two endings is one too many!