Dir: Stephen Chbosky

With: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson

Runtime: 113 minutes

Loading article content

WELL, isn’t this a clash of the niceness titans? Just when it looked like Paddington was going to dominate the Christmas season like some benign, marmalade sandwich-munching Godzilla, along comes an American family drama, Wonder, to give the furry one a run for his money.

Based on the bestselling children’s novel by RJ Palacio, Wonder is the story of a young boy with a severe facial disfigurement. Though it wears its heart on its sleeve, teetering perilously close to sentimentality at times, its charms outweigh its flaws.

When first we meet Auggie Pullman he is wearing a Star Wars T-shirt, a spaceman’s helmet, and bouncing on his bed. Like Auggie says, he’s an ordinary kid who likes to do ordinary kid things. But underneath the helmet, Auggie is far from ordinary. Born with a genetic abnormality, he has endured dozens of operations to enable him to see, hear and breathe, leaving him with a heavily scarred and reconstructed face.

Educated at home by his mother (played by Julia Roberts) and doted on by her, his father (Owen Wilson) and his older sister, Auggie has up till now been largely protected from the stares of the outside world. Now aged ten, his parents reckon the time has come for him to go to school with other children. As they drop him off for his first day, mum offers up a prayer: “Dear God, please make them be nice to him.”

Some hope. A few pupils are decent enough, but one boy bullies him mercilessly, and every last one of them stares. The fears of Auggie and his family have proven only too real. His classmates seem unable, or unwilling, to look beyond appearances and get to know the funny, smart, kind boy who is Auggie.

Cinema has gone over similar ground before, notably in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1985 drama, Mask. Three decades on, it might have been hoped that things had changed, that society had become more accepting of difference. Director Stephen Chbosky shows that to some extent things have moved on. The school, led by headteacher Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin of Homeland fame) goes all out to be welcoming and supportive. Auggie’s family are well off (whatever dad does for a living it is enough to pay for a handsome brownstone in New York), endlessly supportive and encouraging. But none of it is enough to bring the walls of discrimination down.

There are some heavy tugs on the heartstrings as Auggie tries to fit in. Wisely, Chbosky, helmer of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, lightens the mood now and again with fantasy segments, as when Auggie comforts himself with the thought that the kids would stare at Chewbacca if he turned up, just because he was different.

He also widens the picture out to take in other characters, such as Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). Through her, we see how having a disabled child in the family can leave siblings feeling left out.

Chbosky overdoes it with the extra character studies, giving the piece the feel of a TV series squashed into a film. The list grew so long at one point that it seemed only the family dog had been left out. But then what do you know, Daisy the dog gets her five minutes of fame too. Overall, Wonder’s chief sin is commission rather than omission, with Chbosky trying to pack in too much. Too much of the book, too much heart, too much of everything. There are worse things a film can do.

Roberts and Wilson play to their strengths, both funny, warm, engaging presences, spreading a glow, and a glamour, throughout the film. As for Auggie, it would be a measure of how much attitudes towards disability had changed, and it would drive home the film’s message like nothing else, if he had been played by a disabled actor. Unfortunately, though a casting call went out, and despite the efforts of producers, it was not to be.

Auggie is played instead by Jacob Tremblay, unrecognisable here, courtesy of prosthetics, from the child who was Jack in 2015’s Room.

Tremblay, it must be said, turns in a superb performance as the wise-beyond-his-years Auggie. Fans of the book, and the many who will rush to read it after seeing this, will not be disappointed.