(PG) General release (113 minutes)
The sick child was a much-loved motif in Victorian art and literature. Along with Dickens, its most effective proponent, dull Victorian painters with a taste for bathos were mad about it.
Hollywood feels the same way, so Wonder, the story of a 10 year old born with facial defects which still affect his appearance after 27 surgeries sounds like a highly risky prospect.
Nonetheless, it's backed up with a pretty solid insurance policy. Adapted from a best-selling novel by American writer R.J. Pallacio, it's directed by Stephen Chbosky, who's responsible for a gently perceptive screen translation of his own coming-of-age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the cast is headed by Julia Roberts, out to disarm with the spontaneity has lifted many a movie out of the doldrums. She's paired with Owen Wilson, who's deploying his slow delivery and downbeat comic style to similar effect. It's hard to imagine melodrama and Owen Wilson occupying the same sentence. And finally, the boy at the centre of the story is played by Jacob Tremblay, who's no stranger to tricky subjects after his role opposite Oscar winner Brie Larson in Room (2015).
Co-written by Chbosky, the screenplay is draped around a well-worn framework. At 10, Auggie Pullman is about to go to school for the first time, having been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Roberts). From snatches of voice-over narrative, we already know the he's bright, funny, charming and good-natured – the film is taking no chances here – and he wants to go but he's understandably terrified. The headmaster (Mandy Patinkin at his least unsettling) knows how he feels and he has enlisted a small group of classmates to show him around and put him at ease. His judgment however, is a little off and Julian (Bryce Gheiser), the most outgoing of them, turns out to be a smarmy bully who's delighted to have fresh prey. Auggie finds himself having to run the gauntlet of the school's lunch-time crowd every day before settling at a table on his own. Then his luck changes. Jack (Noah Jupe), another of his classroom guides, dares the disapproval of the rest and joins him. To his great astonishment, Auggie starts to have fun.
The plot that follows holds few surprises. Friends fall out, there are betrayals, misunderstandings, paybacks and reconciliations. Auggie is hurt but recovers and the old lesson about the folly of judging people by appearances is hammered home once more. The skill lies in the way these cliches are reinvigorated. It starts with the writing which fleshes out the formula by giving all the characters their due. Chbosky even challenges one of the basic rules in the screenwriters' manual by successfully executing several switches in point-of-view, complete with voice-over. Not only do we get Auggie's story, we hear from Jack, Isabel and Auggie's teenage sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), whose love for her brother can't quite cancel out her sadness at the fact that his troubles command all her parents' attention. It's the kind of part which invites a surfeit of self-pity but it's written with great care and realised even more deftly by Vidovic who tempers its poignancy with a stoic matter-of-factness.
And when things do threaten to slide towards the maudlin there's always Wilson as Nate, Auggie's father. His is one of the few underwritten roles in the movie. His main job is to be himself, on hand to administer a shot of humour whenever the sugar levels look like getting out of control.
Nonetheless, Hollywood rules in the end and it's very much a soft-focus view of a family under stress. They live in an elegant brownstone and Nate's well-paid job involves so little overtime that he's usually around to counsel and console Auggie when he's at his lowest.
And towards the denouement, Chbosky abandons all thoughts of restraint and heads for the big, mawkish Hollywood finish. You wish he wouldn't but you knew he would. And yet Auggie and his predicament still hit home. In the age of the selfie, how could they not?
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