There’s no movie genre more fraught with mixed emotions than the humble tear-jerker. If you’re a filmmaker, getting a theater full of complete strangers to sob on command is no small feat. It may seem easy, but in truth it’s a sort of middlebrow magic act that’s a lot harder than people give it credit for. On the flip side, for those of us in the audience, we demand more than simple manipulation. We want to feel that the tears we shed are earned, not pried out of our ducts with a crowbar. We want subtlety in exchange for our precious sniffles. Stephen Chbosky’s new three-hankie drama, Wonder, is not a subtle movie. Let’s be absolutely clear about that. Hell, an adorable dog dies in the middle act for no essential reason to the plot. So it’s a minor miracle that the film works as well as it does. You’re guaranteed to spend nearly two hours with a lump the size of a nectarine in your throat without resenting it.
Adapted from a novel by R.J. Palacio, Chbosky (the talented director behind year 2012’s terrific coming-of-age tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and his cowriters Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne tell the story of Augie Pullman — a whip-smart 10-year-old boy with congenital disorder that has deformed his face in a way that others find off-putting. The problem is more theirs than his. But since he’s 10, he has a hard time seeing it that way. He’s so self-conscious about his appearance that he wears an astronaut’s helmet everywhere he goes. It’s his way of hiding from the world. Beneath the latex and putty, Augie is played by Jacob Tremblay, the precocious young actor from Room, whose sweet, soft, high-pitched voice seems tailor-made to pull at your heartstrings.
Like Eric Stoltz in 1985’s Mask, Tremblay’s Augie is adorable and guileless and you’re rooting for him from the opening scene. So are his adoring parents, who are played by the perfectly cast Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson – a couple I would have had a hard time seeing on paper, but whose chemistry onscreen is undeniable. Roberts’ Isabel has put her life on hold to homeschool Augie, but now that he’s about to enter the fifth grade, she and Wilson think it’s time for him to leave the protective nest of their oversized New York brownstone and face the world. As overprotective parents, it’s not an easy decision. But they know that sooner or later, Augie’s going to have to deal with a moment they’ve been trying to put off forever.
The movie basically follows Augie’s school year at a private school: the cruel teasing he suffers, the unlikely friendships he makes, the prejudices he helps others overcome. But Chbosky approaches the familiar material with clever touches, telling the story not just through Augie’s pint-sized eyes, but also those of his neglected older sister (Izabela Vidovic), her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell), and his classmates (including Noah Jupe and Bryce Gheisar). It doesn’t hurt that smaller supporting parts are played by seasoned pros like Mandy Patinkin and Sonia Braga. But the real star here is Tremblay, whose sad saucer eyes and thousand-watt smile are like an antidote to the tear-jerker genre’s clichés, like not one but two slow-clap moments of triumph. Yes, you’ve seen some version of this before, but rarely done this well, this tastefully, and with this much restraint. Will you know that you’re being manipulated? Duh. But the wonder of Wonder is you won’t mind a bit. B+