I’m not adequately prepared to write about a movie like Wonder. Or rather, I simply don’t have the right temperament for it. That’s really just a nice way to say that I’m too much of an asshole to embrace this film’s wide-eyed buoyancy and optimism for the world. So accept the following as this review’s upshot: Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s children’s novel will likely provide all the desired biological responses that you’re looking for without any pesky intellectual concerns. That’s only partly an insult.
The film details the tumultuous childhood of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Trembley). Born with a litany of undisclosed medical issues, the young boy has been in and out of hospitals for much of his life. With his condition apparently under control, the previously home-schooled fifth grader is now going to school with the masses. Well, not really; it’s a private school. I’ll get to that a bit later. Thing is that Auggie, with whatever litany of undisclosed medical issues he’s survived, has been left with certain unbecoming cosmetic facial qualities. Based on the general reaction of his school’s student body, you’d imagine he was the Elephant Man. Auggie’s met with the requisite bullying that one would expect for any kid that defies our culture’s heteronormative standards of beauty.
Chbosky corrals a coterie of familiar actors that orbit Auggie’s central narrative. From Auggie’s mother and father (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) to his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), they more or less function in service to Auggie’s troubled first school year. Which is unfortunate because all these (more interesting) characters have essentially placed their lives on hold for their cosmetically deficient but let’s face it, entirely functional child. And that’s a particular hurdle that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore: little dude’s biggest problem is that he’s ugly. Meanwhile, he’s gifted the luxury of attending one of NYC’s finest private elementary schools, impossibly accommodating parents, a posh walk-up in the city, and the finest medical care that allows the dozen or so hospital bracelets that ornate Auggie’s room to function as decorative totems and not fiscal burdens.
Chbosky (who won critical favor after adapting his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower) remains in his innocuous mode of filmmaking in what’s a visually unsophisticated, but by all means practical, stylistic exercise. The performances are uniformly calibrated to imbue the screenplay’s saccharine platitudes with the sort of engineered uplift that’s honestly a little difficult to pull off – even my cynical interior couldn’t resist some of its most crushingly obvious moments. But I mean, this is a film that involves a montage of two children becoming friends set to The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends”; there’s no gamesmanship here. It’s gratuitously, even obscenely, obvious. That kind of naked, unabashedly direct mode of filmmaking has its moments, but rarely does it amount to anything especially profound.
Which, when confronted with the realization that something like Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (an infinitely more rigorous and contemplative children’s film) is still playing in theaters, then the decision to see Wonder is considerably less easy to justify. It’s so woefully bland and unconcerned with anything beyond superficialities and reciting banalities that it’s impossible not to fixate on its irksome rhetoric. Though like with Wallflower, I’m certain there will be those who find warmth and comfort in Wonder’s hackneyed directness. They can have it but I’ll keep Wonderstruck.