Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" is sweet and touching

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Based on the popular book by R. J. Palacio, Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" is a sweet, delicate but self-aware adaptation that remarkably sidesteps most of the clichés that a film such as this could have easily fallen into. It is the universality of the message that rings truest in Chbosky's film, that of accepting people for who they are and, most importantly, being kind to one another. It might sound all saccharine, but it is deftly told by a filmmaker whose last film (an adaptation of his own novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") also dealt with adolescent angst. 

Although it will remind some of Peter Bogdonavich's excellent "Mask," in which a boy also had to deal with a craniofacial birth defect, "Wonder" separates itself from that film by being its own kind of sweet-natured fable. If Bogdanovich's film was a grittier, more morose-filled film, Chbosky does not want any of that – he believes in the courage and strength and against-all-odds journey of his character.

The film traces a year in the life of a severely disfigured boy Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who is going to school for the first time in his young life after years of home-schooling, courtesy of his understandably overprotective mother (Julia Roberts). Co-screenwriters Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne have adapted Palacio's book and have kept its core centrality to inspire with both humane relatability and an overabundance of real emotions. 

An Oscar-nominee for "Room," Jacob Tremblay, almost unrecognizable in makeup, manages to pass this tough acting challenge by playing Auggie Pullman, a 10-year-old wonder boy who has had to face adversity his entire life. Despite 27 surgical procedures, the facial birth defect he has had to shoulder on his entire, short life, has been a burden to say the least – so much so, that Auggie prefers to wear his astronaut helmet than to show his true self. Despite all that, this is as much a story about this tough little boy as it is about the resilience of his parents Isabel and Nate, (Roberts and Owen Wilson) who, hesitatingly, decide it's time for Auggie to join regular kids his age in the fifth grade. They know his new chapter in life will, no doubt, be filled with curious students staring and mocking Auggie's deformities. Nate is most hesitant, comparing the situation to sending a "lamb to the slaughter." 

The greeting that Auggie receives upon entering the halls of his new school is all too predictable, with bullies led by Julian (Bryce Gheisar) using verbal assaults to put down this sweet-natured kid, who expected the worse and gets it. However, there are also kids that care, and want to make Auggie feel at home. They know how tough it must be for him, and the conversations that ensue between them are touchingly rendered, in a way that feels like you're just witnessing the best example of kindness on display.  There is also Mandy Patinkin’s principal, who is prepared for Auggie’s trials and tribulations and tries to make the process run as smoothly and problem-free as possible.

More importantly, just like in Palacio's book, Chbosky decides to divide his narrative into different chapters, dedicating each of the four divisions to young characters who are well connected to Auggie but have problems of their own. The fact that events are repeated and shown through different perspectives brings a surprising artfulness to the film, developing the characters further and investing the viewer even more so into the story. 

There's Auggie's older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), a high school freshman, whose best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) comes back from her summer changed and only wanting to hang with the "cool" kids. It does not help that Via has always been second-fiddle in the family to Auggie, mostly due to the sensitive nature of her brother's situation. However, the brother/sister bond they have is undeniably affectionate. Miranda gets her own chapter as well, ditto Auggie's new best friend Jack (Noah Jupe), but he ends up being another strain in Auggie's sensitive emotional state.

It is a good time to mention how good Roberts and Wilson are in their supporting roles. Roberts' Isabel is a well-written part, but Roberts brings some much-added dimension to her role. There is heartbreak, despair, hope, anger, love and so much more in this performance, maybe the best the actress has given us since her Oscar-winning turn in "Erin Brockovich." Yes, it's really been that long since Roberts has fully pushed herself on-screen, not counting, of course, her career-best work as Dr. Emma Brookner in HBO's TV movie "The Normal Heart." Wilson, on the other hand, is her worthy counterpart, hitting all the right notes as the father who cannot let go of the overprotection and guidance he has given his child since his complicated birth.

Of course, with a story such as this, the drama can sometimes have a lack of subtlety to it, especially at its climax when the director tries to preach his stories’ morals in a way that feels out of touch with the rest of his movie. Much of the film's success does reside upon Chbosky's mostly restrained execution, but it is Tremblay that carries it and makes it such a winner. His fully rendered and exceptional performance is something of a miracle as it joyously goes past the prosthetics and into the core of his character's roller coaster of emotions. It's a testament to the 11-year-old's acting abilities that he can jump from a scene filled with drama and emotions to another filled with joy and comic relief. There are not many actors his age, hell any age, that can successfully do what he does in this film. The overwhelming balance act of emotions that Auggie has makes the role a high-wire act in riskiness, which Tremblay swiftly and effortlessly pulls off. [B]