On the surface. Wonder looks like the kind of family-pandering pap that makes me want to run the other way. Do you really want to spend two hours watching the plight of a young boy born with a congenital facial deformity that gets him ridiculed when he musters the courage to go outside without hiding under his favorite astronaut helmet? Based on a 2012 bestseller by R. J. Palacio that inspired an anti-bullying “Choose Kind” movement, Wonder isn’t exactly adverse to shameless tearjerking. The good news is that writer-director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) sidesteps the more blatantly cloying clichés inherent in the genre and finds a beating heart that mostly transcends the heavy dollops of Hollywood sugarcoating. A first-rate cast doesn’t hurt either.
Julia Roberts lowers the glam and ups the grit as Isabel Pullman, the mother of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old science geek and Star Wars fanatic who has already endured dozens of operations that still can’t disguise the scars on his face. Tremblay, so good opposite Oscar winner Brie Larson in Room, manages to give a fine, feeling performance even with prosthetics covering his face. The film encompasses a life-changing year for Auggie. Having been home-schooled by Isabel while his dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), goes to work, Auggie is now about to leave the protective zone of their Brooklyn brownstone to enter fifth grade at the Beecher Prep School, where he’ll have to learn to interact with kids his own age, kids who tease his Star Wars obsession and call him “Barf Hideous.” The situation is fraught, even for Auggie’s teen sister Via, short for Olivia (Izabela Vidovic, excellent ), who has spent her own, supposedly “normal” life living in the shadow of a brother who pulls her parents’ focus so completely that Via feels invisible.
Chbosky doesn’t make that mistake. Though Auggie stays at the center of the plot, Chbosky lets each character claim his or her own section of the film. The varied perspectives give dimension to a story that could have hammered away relentlessly at the same theme. Chbosky stays alert to what’s going on in the corners of a scene, such as the one in which Jack (Noah Jupe), Auggie’s science-class partner and first friend, inexplicably betrays him. The how and why give the film a tough core that gets audiences over the sappier parts that ooze conventional wisdom. Wonder is an emotional wipeout, that’s for sure, but Chbosky handles it with such tenderness and delicacy, you won’t hate yourself (too much) for giving in.