I have a confession. I do not recall who first put me on to Wonder, by R J Palacio. It’s an outrage because, at the very least, I owe them a hug. I do remember, however, the first time I read this quite astounding book. I was on a plane into Washington DC, and only realised I’d punched the air, shouted “YES!!!” and was wiping away a tear when the people sitting around me turned and stared. A flight attendant asked if I was alright, I replied that yes, I was, absolutely fine, it’s just the book I’m reading. She asked what it was. I said “Wonder” and she smiled and said, yeah, that’s completely understandable then.
I’ve had the same (albeit slightly less vocal) reaction on subsequent readings which is why the film filled me more with a sense of dread than a sense of its titular emotion. What if it doesn’t pack the same punch? What if they get it wrong?
And, as you can probably tell from the score above, they haven’t. They really haven’t. And that’s less of a wonder, more of a bloody miracle. August Pullman is known as Auggie to his family and friends. However, it’s the latter that’s the problem. He doesn’t really have any friends. A rare form of mandibulofacial dystosis, a genetic condition, has left Auggie with severe facial defects that many surgeries have improved but not cured. While his mother has taught him at home through this period, Auggie is now 10, and she thinks it’s time for him to start going to school. The story follows Auggie on his first year as a fifth grader, through the bullying, the friendships, the betrayals and reconciliations…
And it’s blooming brilliant. This could be the most mawkish, saccharine tale in Christendom but Palacio’s source novel and Stephen Chbosky’s screenplay and direction take this down a very different path. The novel’s central device – switches of narrative between key players – is repeated here, meaning that your perception of events is subtly changed, which adds a remarkable layer of depth to a story that is, essentially, a lesson in not taking anything or anyone at face value. The success of the film also rests, of course, on the casting. Owen Wilson is terrific as Auggie’s dad, Nate. Izabela Vidovic is a delight as Auggie’s sister Via, a teenage girl going through her own problems with occasional, believable resentment of the attention foisted upon her younger sibling. Mandy Patinkin is on affable form as Auggie’s headmaster Mr Tushman. Noah Jupe is terrific as Auggie’s best friend Jack Will, and Bryce Gheisar is equally believable as Auggie’s school yard nemesis Julian. And then there’s Julia Roberts as Auggie’s mum, Isabel, a performance of quiet determination, intelligence, humour and understanding that’s probably about as good and believable as anything Roberts has done before.
And then, at the centre of everyone’s universe, is Auggie himself, played by Jacob Tremblay. Best known as the kid in Room, he simply builds on that reputation here, with charm, humour and some heartbreaking little moments, and all under a convincing set of prosthetics. If you’re not punching the air and shedding a tear by the end, you can never be my friend. It’s as simple as that. Simply put, Wonder is exactly what it says on the tin.