Wonder is a joyous family discovery of kindness and empathy

By Leigh Monson

   Perhaps now more than ever there is an enduring value in teaching our children to be kind. Keep in mind, this isn't a plea for passivity, but for kindness, a mutual strength in supporting each other through the hard times. This is the thesis for Wonder, a family film that could have easily turned south and became a Hallmark film to mourn the freak of the week, but instead it rises above such hollow platitudes to deliver a message of hope and, more importantly, empathy.
   Our story primarily focuses on the Pullman family, most notably the children: fifth grader Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) and high school freshman Via (Izabela Vidovic). Auggie was born with a genetic disorder that required many corrective surgeries to his face after birth, which has left him scarred and with abnormally shaped features. Because of his sensitivity about his appearance—and other people's reactions to him—Auggie's parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, taking on supporting roles rather than starring ones) have homeschooled him until they thought he was old enough to brave the outside world without them. Fifth grade is officially that time, but meanwhile, as Auggie faces down bullies and struggles to make friends when nobody will treat him like a normal kid, Via silently suffers the inexplicable loss of her best and only friend, unable to vent her frustration or expend that emotional energy with her family because their parents are always more attentive to Auggie's needs.
   What unfolds is a sprawling story of kindness, wherein Auggie learns that he isn't the only person with problems and Via comes to find support within and without her family. The narrative eventually expands to encompass a friend (Noah Jupe) who learns to accept Auggie despite his appearance and Via's former best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) who struggles with her own family troubles, and remarkably enough, the primarily child-led cast delivers solid performances across the board. Director Stephen Chbosky (who also co-wrote the film with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne) pulls from these kids a tale of understanding and acceptance. Auggie is absolutely the main character, but this isn't just about him finding his inner strength or about others learning to accept him for his differences. Rather, Wonder is about the contagious and essential drive for empathy and mutual understanding, demonstrating how even a child's bullies deserve a bit of understanding compassion.
   This doesn't mean Wonder is without its faults. Though Chbosky shows remarkable restraint, the film does sometimes dip into saccharine territory, and due to the sprawling and complex nature of each character having the necessary depth for a growth arc, the film's third act feels at times interminable, compounding epilogues to the point of tedium. Even so, Wonder is a lovely time that is not only entertaining, funny, and heartfelt, but leaves us with an understanding that kindness is necessary and all too often forgotten, whether out of shame, ignorance, peer pressure, or inflated ego. This is a lesson your kids deserve, and hopefully some adults too can learn to choose kindness.

3.5/5 stars