So it's easy to imagine just how tough school would be for a kid with an obvious facial deformity. That's the premise of Stephen Chbosky's new film Wonder and it's one that, with a few caveats, works surprisingly well.
August 'Auggie' Pullman is a young kid growing up in Manhattan who was born with 'mandibulofacial dyostosis'. As he's spent most of his early life undergoing a seemingly endless succession of surgeries he's been home schooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), an illustrator. Auggie's a bright kid, science is his big thing, and he's funny too but people's reaction to his face have seen him take to covering his face with an astronaut's helmet.
The film shows Auggie during his first year at Beecher Prep, a private school that clearly has a good reputation but nonetheless contains its fair share of bullies. Some of the kids call him a freak, they call him Barf Hideous, and they say he's got the plague. We see Auggie eating lunch alone in the refectory as other kids point, stare, and laugh at him.
It is, of course, heartbreaking and it is, of course, schmaltzy. The thing with 'weepies' is that you can feel a little bit manipulated by them, Marcelo Zarvos's string-soaked score almost cues your tears in here and there's a few overtly treacly scenes of sermonising and kids saying earnest and emotionally intelligent things that kids just don't really tend to say in real life.
Where the film works much better is in the way it chooses to tell the story. It's broke, roughly, into a few chapters that tell the story from different perspectives. After Auggie tells his story we see events from the angle of his sister Via (a wonderfully understated performance from Izabel Vidovic). Via's a sensible, intelligent girl who knows that Auggie is the sun and she's just one of the planets that orbit him. She secretly seeks validation from her parents while quietly getting on with her studies and developing a touching relationship with boyfriend Justin (Nadji Jetter).
More surprisingly still we also get to see events from the angle of Via's best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). Miranda seems to have gone a bit wild since returning from summer camp (she's dyed her hair, taken to drinking, and doesn't seem to want anything more to do with Via) but what seems initially like the selfishness of youth is revealed to have deeper resonance.
It's a great strength of the film that each repetition of events serves to cast light, rather than shade, over the story. Chbosky is so naturally conciliatory that even school bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) is fleshed out with a back story rather than allowed to operate as a cartoon baddie.
Performances are excellent throughout. Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie as a mixture of defiance, weary resignation, and despair - a human with a range of emotions basically. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as Auggie's parents are solid and seem realistic, and Vidovic and Jetter sketch out the burgeoning stages of a teenage relationship tenderly, but even the more minor roles are allowed dignity and depth, permitted to breathe.
At the school we meet principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), English teacher Mr Browne (Daveed Diggs), and science teacher Ms Petosa (Ali Liebert). At times they seem almost too nice but it's a sweet touch that they get their moment to shine and aren't reduced to Peanuts style mwah-mwah voices in the background, stressed out incompetents, or grizzled old grumps.
Auggie's friends Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis) are fine child actors who put in performances worthy of, or even better than, their adult peers. Both their characters get to go on their journey of learning and acceptance as the film develops too - as we all must as children and probably should continue to do as adults also.
The film makes great use of The White Stripes 'We're Going to be Friends', it's neatly edited so there's no fat on it, and if the scene with Sonia Braga as Via's grandmother seems to only be in the film because Sonia Braga was available and the ending ties up a bit too neatly they're fairly minor criticisms. It would be a grand claim to say that artistically this is one of the year's finest films but it was touching, enjoyable, and it did make the cinema feel all warm. What else do you want in December?
Thanks to Valia for the tickets, the company, the input into this write up, and for not laughing at me when I got 'something in my eye'.