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The ‘Wonder’ of it all

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YA adaptation inspires laughter, tears

You would think that after years spent as a film critic, I’d be somewhat inured to having my emotions manipulated by movies. Strangely enough, the opposite is true. While I’m certainly conscious of the tools Hollywood uses in order to make me feel feelings, it doesn’t keep me from feeling them.

The difference is that I’m aware of WHY I’m feeling them.

That’s why a movie such as “Wonder” – directed by Stephen Chbosky from a screenplay adapted from R. J. Palacio’s best-selling novel of the same name – is such a welcome experience. It is unabashed in its sentimentality and unafraid to lean into emotion, but it never veers into the realm of overwrought melodrama. It earns the response it elicits – no small feat for such a tearjerker of a film.

In many ways, August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, “The Book of Henry”) is a typical 10-year-old. He likes video games and pizza and wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. He’s got parents who love him – mom Isabel (Julia Roberts, “Money Monster”) and dad Nate (Owen Wilson, “Cars 3”) – and a big sister named Via (Izabela Vidovic, TV’s “The Foster”) who’s pretty fond of him as well.

But in one very important way, Auggie’s not typical at all.

Due to a genetic anomaly, Auggie has spent his life in and out of hospitals. His face is scarred and misshapen – he doesn’t look like other kids. His troubled medical history and unconventional appearance have led to his mother homeschooling him for his entire life.

But it’s time to go to regular school.

Auggie struggles at first – the other kids treat him as a pariah because of his appearance. One kid named Julian (Bryce Gheisar, “A Dog’s Purpose”) is especially mean to him. But he does make one friend – a young man named Jack Will (Noah Jupe, “Suburbicon”) who is able to see beyond Auggie’s looks to the smart, funny boy inside.

Meanwhile, Auggie’s parents have struggles of their own as they deal with the change in their lives. And Via, having long been left to her own devices because of Auggie’s needs, finds herself with no one to talk to when her own personal problems begin to mount.

Auggie has an impact on everyone that enters his orbit, but his struggles are undeniable. His life is filled with challenges – big ones. Far too big for a 10-year-old kid to deal with, but that’s the way it goes. All he can do is hope that the support of those around him will be enough to let him battle through the obstacles in front of him without letting his oh-so-big heart be broken.

Full disclosure: I cried a lot during this movie. Like, A LOT. Numerous times, the tears welled. Watching “Wonder” left me emotionally wrung out and kind of exhausted. But it also left me uplifted.

Any half-competent filmmaker knows which buttons to push to garner emotional responses. Cinema is an inherently manipulative medium; anyone who winds up helming a Hollywood studio picture can pull the levers and steer an audience in the required direction. But to do it not as a trick, but rather in real service to the story being told? That’s something altogether different – and something Chbosky and company achieve. In short, “Wonder” feels honest.

That’s the aspect of this movie that keeps it from plunging into self-indulgence. There’s an ever-present optimism; even during the film’s emotional low points, that sense of hope never evaporates. There’s a soul to this movie that lends a genuineness to all the feelings it elicits. It is sentimental, yes, but never saccharine. The baseline of truthfulness woven throughout serves as a foundation for the narrative.

Ultimately, though, it is the performances that really seal the deal with regards to the overall quality of this film. Tremblay is one of the most talented child actors in the business; few kids his age are capable of the range that he displays. He is funny and sharp and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Wilson and Roberts are a lovely pairing; a couple of professionals who treat the material with respect. Each of them has moments that could easily succumb to hand-wringing histrionics, but instead, they give thoughtful, honest performances. Vidovic is a real talent as well; hers is an understated turn that is no less effective for its relative subtlety.

The supporting players are strong as well. Jupe is adorably wide-eyed and sincere as Jack Will. Gheisar epitomizes the smarmy middle school bully. The rest of the kids featured in the cast are solid as well, with very little of the hamminess and/or woodenness that you often find with young performers. Nadji Jeter is wonderful in his scenes as Via’s potential love interest, while Danielle Rose Russell is great as Via’s BFF. In addition, Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs are both excellent as Auggie’s headmaster and homeroom teacher, respectively.

Even when blinking away tears, it’s easy to see that “Wonder” works. It is a heartfelt and thoughtful movie, a fantastic parable for any kid (of any age) who has struggled with what it means to be different. The performances are spot-on, the sentiments are sincere and the emotions generated are genuine.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – “Wonder” is, well … wonderful.

[5 out of 5]

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