“Wonder” is as manipulative as movies get, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a story needs to steer you; sometimes a story tells you what to feel, but redeems itself by virtue of the sincerity with which it shows why you should feel that way. In much the same way that fables and fairy tales exist to making a particular point, subtlety would be counterintuitive to the very nature of what this film is trying to do. And really, no one should be expecting Chekhov from an inspirational tear-jerker about a deformed little kid whose parents are played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson.
As generous as it is linear (and only emotionally pornographic towards the end), “Wonder” may be manipulative, but it’s also instructive. It’s a how-to guide for kindness — a good lesson for kids, and a helpful reminder for adults. It’s not like the world couldn’t use one.
Based on R.J. Palacio’s 2012 YA novel of the same name, and directed by “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” mastermind Stephen Chbosky, “Wonder” chronicles a year in the life of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay). And what a tumultuous year it will be, as the little man is slated to start middle school. That can be a challenging time for any kid, but it’s almost unfathomably difficult for one born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a cruel affliction that makes Auggie feel like the Rocky Dennis of the Upper West Side.
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While Auggie has the good fortune of being a fictional character who’s been designed from scratch to stir our sympathies — the scars that cut along his cheeks pull down the corners of his eyes so that he always looks like a whimpering puppy, making his Padawan rat tail the most unfortunate aspect of his appearance — that’s still an impossible burden to bear at a time in life when a single pimple is enough to make you feel like the Elephant Man.
Needless to say, it’s perfectly understandable why Auggie has been homeschooled until now, and why he chooses to spend most of his time with his head hidden inside an astronaut’s helmet. He even wears his armor to the dinner table, flipping up the visor for each bite (a distressing habit that makes his dad regret ever buying the damn thing). Auggie’s blessings may seem few and far between, but at least his family loves him. Auggie is the sun of the Pullman galaxy — to the occasional chagrin of his teenage sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic) — and everyone else is left to figure the best way to share his light with the world. Wilson and Roberts, who fall into a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine, both excel at letting us in to that struggle.
The first 30 minutes of the film are extremely straightforward, as Auggie is introduced to public life through a series of predictable figures. There’s the kindhearted principal of his new school (Mandy Patinkin), and the similarly reassuring homeroom teacher (Daveed Diggs, continuing the Hamiltonification of Hollywood) who radiates warmth and knows all the right ways to help Auggie feel like he belongs. There’s the bully (Bryce Gheisar, who’s more dastardly two-faced than Tommy Lee Jones or Aaron Eckhart ever were), and there’s the scholarship kid (Noah Jupe), who faces the social pressure of being Auggie’s first real friend. Crucially, these characters are sketched with enough integrity to convince us that each of these early scenes might actually be about them.
In fact, the film’s greatest strength — and, in a way, perhaps it’s only insensitivity — is that Auggie ultimately becomes a means to an end. He’s never just a prop for personal growth, but over time that evolves into his primary function. At a certain point, “Wonder” abruptly switches perspectives, reducing Auggie to a supporting role in his own story. The film does this a few time over, entrapping us into passing judgment on a character before forcing us to see things through their eyes.
As soon as we start to side-eye Via for being even a little self-centered, the plot rewinds like a pubescent “Rashomon” and shows us why she needs a support system of her own. As soon as we start to think that Via’s former best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) has been a total jerk ever since she came back from summer camp with red highlights in her hair, we’re brought into the middle of her parents’ divorce. And so on (and on and on), the film almost confronting us with more empathy than we have the patience to handle — don’t beat yourself up if the interminable fourth act makes you wish that some people could just be totally indifferent to Auggie’s existence.
Chbosky’s unfettered humanism continues to be both his most valuable asset and his Achilles’ Heel. For every nuanced scene that illustrates how Auggie might find a place for himself in the modern world (a major dramatic moment takes place in a game of “Minecraft”), there’s a needless moment of over-baked sentiment waiting to pummel you down the line. Parents might squirm, but not even the most distracted kid is going to leave this movie without a very clear understanding of its message.
All the same, there’s an elegance to how each of these new POVs bends back towards Auggie, encircling him like a shield until he no longer needs to live inside the astronaut helmet. There’s always something vaguely exploitative about stories in which someone different is used to teach us how we’re all the same, but “Wonder” recognizes that Auggie can only do so much to improve his own life, that the empathy he provokes — and the egocentricity he destroys — within the people around him represents his best hope for happiness.
The film works because it finds some genuine common ground: Everybody wants to be seen, but nobody wants to be stared at. Chbosky might yank us through the wringer like we’re in a car wash, but it’s nice to feel clean for a change.
“Wonder” opens in theaters on Friday, November 17.