Credit Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
“I know I’m not an ordinary 10-year-old kid,” says Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), the lead character of “Wonder,” as we see him standing on his bed wearing an astronaut’s helmet. When the helmet is removed, we know how he knows what he knows: His young face is scarred, his earlobes are little flaps and his eyes are seemingly tear-shaped, giving him a perpetual sad-puppy expression.
The good-natured fellow describes his facial birth defects, and the 27 operations he’s endured to deal with them, as “hilarious.” But Auggie is less amused by the prospect of entering the fifth grade, and no longer being home-schooled by his brilliant and loving mother, Isabel Pullman (Julia Roberts).
The Pullmans are an upper-middle-class family living in a fairy-tale New York, one that the film’s location manager conjured up from the most genteel corners of Brooklyn and Manhattan (as well as New Westminster, British Columbia, where the interior of the family’s brownstone was built on a warehouse stage). So Auggie, whose father, Nate (Owen Wilson), has a job that lets him wear a suit and sneakers, is certainly going to a good school. Nonetheless, he knows that he will encounter bullies, and he does. But Auggie is smart, clever and exceptionally good-hearted (at least when he is not being made to feel self-conscious and alone), and has a knack for winning people over.
The movie, based on the popular children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, hews to the book’s multicharacter narration structure. This tactic reminded me of a line in Jean Renoir’s classic “The Rules of the Game” about everybody having their own reasons for their behavior. In Renoir’s movie, that fact is called a “truly terrible thing.” In the world of this film, understanding another person’s reasons is the first step in establishing meaningful communication. During the section of the film narrated by Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), you learn why, in an awkward first conversation with her future boyfriend, she impulsively tells him that she’s an only child, despite the fact that she loves and ardently protects her little brother.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the screenplay with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, the movie has a cast that’s wonderful from top to bottom. As Auggie’s parents, Ms. Roberts and Mr. Wilson are doing things we love to see those actors doing. (Ms. Roberts lets loose with her trademark ebullient laugh at least once, and Mr. Wilson explains life’s issues to Auggie in a droll drawl.) All the young people in the ensemble, anchored by Mr. Tremblay’s Auggie, are perfect.
“Wonder” is that rare thing, a family picture that moves and amuses while never overtly pandering. Mr. Chbosky’s 2012 feature, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” split the difference between the sentimental heart-tugging associated with more standard Hollywood fare, and the intelligence and intimacy often associated with independent films. He accomplishes something very similar, and equally worthwhile, here.