You know “Wonder” is going to be a Cry Movie, what with the amazing young actor Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) playing a brave and amazing 10-year-old boy named August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a genetic facial deformity and has undergone some 17 operations — but still alarms adults and freaks out kids merely by taking off his space helmet and letting the world see him.
What elevates Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio is the myriad ways in which “Wonder” catches us just a little off-guard and puts lumps in our throats even when Auggie is off-screen, and we’re learning about supporting characters who rarely get their own sections in movies such as this.
Every once in a while, a character’s name pops up on the screen, and the story shift to that individual’s point of view.
Auggie’s 14-year-old sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic, in a lovely performance), dearly loves her brother and has willingly yielded the family spotlight to him all these years — but Via wishes her mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) would once, just once, draw a picture of her, ask her about the first day of school, look at her at the dinner table the way she looks at Auggie.
Or how about Via’s best friend since they were little kids, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell)? She’s come back from summer camp with pink streaks in her hair and a nose ring and a sudden lack of interest in being Via’s friend any more. When we drop in on Miranda’s world, there’s a surprising and moving motive behind the “Mean Girls” persona.
Even Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who becomes Auggie’s first real friend but then becomes estranged from his pal, gets his own scene or two.
All of these detours eventually circle around to the story of Auggie’s adventures in the fifth grade in his first year at school with other students (his mother had been home schooling him up to that point). But when the focus shifts to Auggie, we’re more invested in the story as a whole because we understand and care about some of the key players in this pivotal period of his life.
On more than a few occasions, “Wonder” ladles on the syrup. (No movie should feature the White Stripes’ sweet but overused “We’re Going to Be Friends” not once, but twice. The second time is an almost guaranteed Whimsy Overdose.)
When your movie is about a brave but vulnerable little boy with facial differences, you probably don’t need to pile on the sentimentality with an adorable dog who’s been a part of the family since Auggie was born, which was a decade ago, and you do the math, and I’m not saying there’s a scene where Daisy the dog whimpers and Auggie’s mom says, “Are you OK girl?” but I’m not saying there’s isn’t one, either.
Owen Wilson gives one of his most endearing performances in years as Auggie’s dad. Wilson is still sporting that surfer’s haircut and he retains some of his long-running “Hey, dude” cool, but he’s perfectly believable as a hipster dad who often plays the good cop to mom’s bad cop.
Roberts, who whips out the most infectious laugh in the movies at an opportune time, does fine work as Auggie’s mom, who has pretty much set her life on hold from the moment Auggie was born.
The young actors, notably Izabela Vidovic as Auggie’s sister Via, Nadji Jeter as a potential love interest for Via and Millie Davis as a girl named Summer who tires of her classmates making fun of Auggie, are terrific.
Daveed Diggs does strong work as Mr. Browne, a former Wall Street hotshot now teaching. Mandy Patinkin is Mr. Tushman the principal, who embraces the obvious jokes connected to his last name, sports a wise man’s beard and makes decision with a crinkle in his eyes. (Who wouldn’t want Mandy Pantinkin as their middle-school principal?)
Unrecognizable under the prosthetics and the makeup, Jacob Tremblay is indeed wondrous as Auggie. He’s playing a boy who is smart and pure of heart and just a good kid overall — but like any 10-year-old, he’s prone to outbursts of temper and selfish behavior, and a tendency to think nobody else in the world ever has any problems, ever.
The learning curve for Auggie is just beginning. The same could be said of those just getting to know him.
They’ll soon see it’s their good fortune to have Auggie in their lives.
Lionsgate presents a film directed by Stephen Chbosky and written by Chbosky, Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Rated PG (for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.