Plot: Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is about to start middle school, which will be his first time in public school. He has been home schooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), as he has gone through twenty-seven surgeries in his young life. Those surgeries have helped him live a better, more comfortable life, but the plastic surgeries have only done so much and he still looks unusual. And since kids can be quite cruel, he is worried about his move to public school, but he is determined to do his best. After all, he is smart and has a great sense of humor, so despite his unusual appearance, Auggie has a lot to offer as a student and a friend. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) deals with losing her best friend, meeting a potential love interest, and trying something new as she joins the drama club. Isabel also returns to the life she put on hold once Auggie was born, as she tries to complete her thesis, while also coping with the big changes in the lives of her family.
Entertainment Value: You can tell from the previews that Wonder is a heart string puller and it pulls out the emotional manipulation often, but winds up a cut above the usual Hollywood schmaltz. While the movie is marketed around young Auggie, the movie spends considerable time exploring the lives of those around him as well, which adds a lot of perspective. Of course, all of these threads lead back to Auggie, but it was still a wise choice to give the others some focus as well. The subplot about how Auggie’s condition has impacted his sister’s life is especially powerful, as she has sacrificed a lot and movies don’t often show this perspective. The movie pulls out all the possible emotional triggers, from bullying to feeling different to betrayal to loss to self loathing, but these are so common, they start to lose resonance. If you have a new emotional trigger every few minutes, it becomes tedious and ineffective, so Wonder should have chosen a few big moments, instead of going overboard in a desperate effort to elicit some tears.
As predictable and cheaply manipulative as the material is, the cast manages to elevate it above the schmaltz at times. Julia Roberts and Mandy Patinkin turn in fine work, while the young children in the cast also shine. Owen Wilson has an odd role, as a father who is in the middle of this sweeping change, but seems more like a mannequin than an actual person. So what should be rather bland, desperate attempts to stir emotions turn out to be a little more than that, thanks to the cast. I am still baffled by Wilson’s role, but as inconsequential as he is, he does turn up, drop a joke, then vanish for a while, so perhaps the filmmakers just needed that bit of comic relief. I think there was real potential in Wonder, but it tries to go down too many predictable, manipulative paths and it feels like overkill. But if you appreciate heart warming, inspirational type movies, even ones that tend to miss that mark, Wonder is a movie that should be worth checking out once.