by Alistair Ryder
Sometimes, it’s hard not to pre-judge a book by its cover. Before seeing Wonder, I was filled with a sense of dread that I was about to be subjected to a mawkish, over sentimental drama that would generalise serious issues regarding child disability. Wonder is nothing like the emotionally manipulative train wreck I was expecting, but for all the charm the film possesses, it can’t help but feel formulaic- a tearjerker it’s impossible to cry at due to how well worn the cliches it presents are.
Wonder; Dir.: Stephen Chbosky; USA 2017, 113 minutes. Our Rating: ★★½
Based on R.J Palacio’s 2012 children’s novel, Wonder stars Jacob Tremblay as August “Auggie” Pullman, a ten year old boy with the facial deformity Treacher Collins Syndrome. Despite having numerous reconstructive surgeries over the years, it can never be cured- and he mostly hides under an astronaut helmet, save for time with his parents (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts), and his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). With the start of a new school year approaching, his parents think its finally time for him to stop being home schooled, which comes with its own set of challenges. How does a boy born to stand out manage to successfully fit in? Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister is facing friendship problems of her own, and struggles to articulate her emotional disconnect from parents who have to give her younger brother extra care and attention by default.
The film has been adapted to the screen by director Stephen Chbosky, whose directorial debut was an adaptation of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2012. Between these two films, it’s safe to say that he’s drawn to stories about childhood misfits; in fact, this film’s structural unruliness can be attributed to spending large swathes of the narrative focusing on Auggie’s sister, whose high school traumas feel of a piece with the outcast dilemmas of his previous effort.
Throughout the film, we are treated to four title cards, each named after one of the film’s characters- which is something of a needless structural addition, as the latter two title cards (named after the best friends of both siblings) barely feature the characters they’re named after, nor does it focus on how the actions of those characters affect the central two characters it continues to feature at the centre of the drama. The segment named after Auggie’s friend Jack Will (played by Noah Jupe), which lasts approximately 20 minutes, features the character in only one sequence- less time than in the segments that he isn’t named after.
It isn’t hard to shake the sense that this is an element that worked well on the page, but has awkwardly been translated to screen- with none of the three screenwriters finding a way to justify the use of this bizarre structural decision, it’s easy to wonder why this framing device wasn’t scrapped altogether. When the second title card flashes up, and we start seeing Auggie’s first day at school from Via’s perspective, the film briefly threatens to become the child disability equivalent of Rashomon. Needless to say, that interesting framing device is thrown out of the window within the next five minutes.
Because if you subtract the structural messiness, and the clichés upon which it comes to rely in the final half hour, Wonder is a delicately handled film that manages to find the humanity where other filmmakers would find crass exploitation. The family dynamics are believable, especially when Chbosky spends his time examining the inter-personal relationships of family members, developing them in to realistic characters as opposed to leaving Auggie as the sole character focus. In fact, Tremblay’s lead performance (buried beneath ample prosthetics) might be the weakest link in the entire project. The character of Auggie is empathetic, but Tremblay falls in to the screeching, overly melodramatic tendencies that derail the majority of child performers- and it isn’t helped by the fact that the character’s naive voiceover often feels like a retread of his voiceover in Lenny Abrahamsson’s Room.
The one thing stopping Tremblay’s performance getting annoying is the empathy with which Chbosky affords this character, and likewise, everybody onscreen. Even the school bully (who has a surprisingly subtler method of belittling his fellow student than a film of this type would usually allow), winds up being treated with an even handedness, despite his actions not being left unexcused. Chbosky’s love of misfits informed his debut feature, and here, he has managed to create something warm out of the tale of trying to fit in, even if you can’t help but stand out.
Wonder may trade in clichés, but by grounding the drama in believable, empathetic characters, it has the edge over a large swathe of the similarly themed family dramas to have been released recently. It may be a formulaic weepie, with a mess of a structure- but it’s no small wonder that the final product isn’t the train wreck I was anticipating.