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Movie review: Young Tremblay anchors Chbosky's thoughtful, moving 'Wonder'

POSTED November 17, 2017 4:32 a.m.
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“WONDER” — 4 stars — Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Daveed Diggs, Mandy Patinkin; PG (thematic elements, including bullying and some mild language); in general release

It’s always nice when someone takes a good idea and makes it even better. “Wonder” is a perfect movie for the holidays, but its feel-good message will come in handy year-round.

Based on the book by R.J. Palacio, Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder” follows a boy named Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) as he begins his first year of public school. What would already be a challenging situation is exacerbated by the fact that Auggie was born with facial deformities, and even after 27 operations, he still hides under a space helmet wherever he goes.

Fortunately, Auggie has a wealth of loving support at home, including his father, Nate (Owen Wilson), and his talented mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), who is venturing back into her passion for illustration after years of home-schooling her son. Auggie also has a big sister named Via (Izabela Vidovic) to give him some valuable direction.

To give her son a boost, Isabel arranges for Auggie to meet a few of his classmates before the new school year. So he meets a spoiled kid named Julian (Bryce Gheisar), a diva-in-training named Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and a boy on scholarship named Jack Will (Noah Jupe).

Space helmets won’t fly at school, so Auggie has to brave his first day face-first, and the results are predictably terrifying. Everyone, from the kids to Auggie’s well-meaning teachers, is taken aback by his looks. But after a rough start, the youngster starts to settle in, even becoming close friends with Jack Will before a misunderstanding compromises their friendship.

At this point, it’s easy to peg “Wonder” as another inspiring story meant to teach us about inner beauty and self-worth. In some ways, “Wonder” feels like another “Mask,” the moving 1985 film about a teenage boy named Rocky with a skull deformity.

But this is where “Wonder” changes gears and becomes something special. Rather than stick with Auggie’s perspective, Chbosky’s film — following the pattern of Palacio’s book — begins skipping to different narrative perspectives, starting with Via.

Auggie’s sister, it turns out, has problems of her own. She’s had a falling-out with her former best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and, thanks to her brother’s plight, Via feels ignored at home. To shake things up, she goes out for a school play and starts dating a boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter).

After we spend some time in Via’s life, “Wonder” adds more perspectives to the mix, including Jack Will’s and later Miranda’s. In each case, the film doubles back and forces us to reinterpret scenes from earlier in the movie as we get more context.

At the same time, Chbosky never lays it on too thick, and “Wonder” avoids being preachy. Led by Tremblay, the cast does a fine job of creating performances that communicate the nuance Chbosky’s film needs to be effective.

Ultimately, “Wonder” is just a sweet film, less about Auggie than it is a portrait of a small group of everyday people with interconnected lives and dreams and struggles. Along with its unique storytelling style, “Wonder” mixes in a great cast and a witty personality to whip up a fantastic family friendly film for the holidays that most audiences should enjoy.

“Wonder” is rated PG for thematic elements, including bullying and some mild language; running time: 113 minutes.

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