‘Choose kind’ might sound like the awkward cousin of everyone’s favourite Trainspotting quote but it is, in fact, the fundamental precept of R. J. Palacio’s bestselling book – and now Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation – Wonder. Cinema’s answer to positive-affirmation woodblocks (‘You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out’), the new film might not live up to the promise of its name and premise but no one could ever deny that its heart is in absolutely the right place.
Having soared to fame two years ago with his startling turn in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, Jacob Tremblay stars here as space-mad August Pullman. Auggie – as he likes to be known – was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, leading to early years dominated by extensive surgery to stabilise the bodily disfigurements part and parcel with his genetic disorder: ‘They’ve helped me to breathe, to see, to hear…’ Twenty-seven operating table excursions later and he quips, ‘It takes a lot of work to look this good’. In a plot not a million light years from that of Room, the film sees young Auggie packed off, by hesitant parents, Isabelle and Nate (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), to attend school for the first time. Change and new environments challenge even the bravest of us but just pause for a moment to imagine what it must be like to approach these with a face that attracts all the wrong sort of attention.
Struggling too, is Auggie’s overlooked sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who returns to school and finds her best friend to have undergone a personality shift and gain a cold shoulder. With the siblings both plunged into isolation, anyone who has ever felt such will find kinship here. At least they’ve got Roberts to spout off endless cheesers like ‘This is the map that shows us where we’re going and this is the map of where we’ve been’.
Tremblay is almost unrecognisable as Auggie, by virtue of the Benjamin Button layers of prosthetics which have been plastered upon him to the point that, occasionally, his performance suffers. Oddly young compared to his on-screen class cohorts, the rising star in him brings genuine power to quiet moments but struggles to make ground with meatier material. Similarly problematic in the make-up here would be that this is a somewhat sanitised translation of the description given by Palacio’s book; it’s hard to believe – in the film at least – that all would immediately notice Auggie from the corner of their eyes, let alone react just so melodramatically. Still, a flattened nose, scarred cheeks and sunken ears stand him apart enough to conjure instant sympathy, whilst it is his tear drop eyes that hold the pain of an outsider. Familiar themes, then, for the director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and certainly no David Lynch – anyone expecting intensity akin to The Elephant Man has clearly not read the sugar-sweet taglines of the film’s poster.
Wonder is actually quite the opposite. After a neat opening, the film never really seems to blast off with its protagonist’s dreams, producing an unfortunately muted, and generally forgettable, overall tone. Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film, however, is just how rigidly it clings to the source itself, transcribing everything from the book’s character-perspective chapter structure to actual lines of dialogue. A little like in the case of the Christopher Columbus Harry Potter films, this effectively leads to the inevitable strains of episodic storytelling, only without the magic of fantasy to keep things continuously fresh. The route that’s being plodded here is predictable, which isn’t a problem, and long, which is.
To be overwhelmingly critical of Wonder, however, would be mean spirited. Plaudits are due to the film for unearthing brilliantly promising talents in Noah Jupe and Millie Davis as Auggie’s friends, Jack Will and Summer, and for camping up one Star Wars character for a delightful cameo. Primarily, though, Wonder is a film with a message that is both heartfelt and important. It’s a lesson in kindness that every child should see and that means something in today’s world.