'Wonder': Kindness triumphs over bullying, but not sentimentality

Given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.

That’s the operative sentiment — imported from from R.J. Palacio’s popular YA book in Wonder, a movie that succeeds as a tearjerker, if you can withstand those pushy moments (and there are a few) when it kind of makes you want to hate kindness.

Wonder is the story of a August (Jacob Tremblay), formerly home schooled by his protective mother (Julia Roberts) because of his facial deformities, and now about to embark on his first day of middle school needless to say most hostile and tactless place a boy like August could find himself.

There are the expected horrors. Director Stephen Chbosky gives us an August-eye view of the student body, parting like the Red Sea and ogling the new kid. A bully surfaces, with a crew. But the private school is full of concerned educators (Mandy Patinkin) and even a few nice kids August makes a friend (Noah Jupe), and other students warm to his wit, charm, and intelligence (he actually has such a large surplus of these attributes that you start to feel sorry for his doomed and overmatched antagonists).

In no time, he’s removed the astronaut helmet he uses to hide from the world, and is horsing around with pals, goofing off in the lunchroom.

Just when the movie starts to feel pat, it veers from August’s story to explore, with titled chapters, other people on the periphery of this drama. Most compellingly August’s sister Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), who has set herself aside so that her parents can concentrate her brother’s special needs. She doesn’t even bother to tell her parents when best friend has mysteriously dumped her. Here Wonder then diverges again, to explore this rift from the point of view of the other girl (Danielle Rose Russell).

It’s the kind of novelistic hopscotch that sometimes gets lost in the transfer to the screen, but here works well. Vidovic is appealing as Olivia (as is Russell). And the fractured storyline is not just a gimmick — it’s in line with the movie’s “choose kind” theme, and builds on the idea that compassion starts with understanding other perspectives.

A few other  aspects of the film feel forced — fantasy elements involving Star Wars characters fall flat. The movie doesn’t need them, but they probably required significant investment and lawyering, and so are kept front and center. And the movie leaves no emotion un-amplified. When you see that August is going to be friends with another kid, the soundtrack hits you upside the head with Caroline Pennell’s  elf-voiced version of “We’re Going to Be Friends.” 

And just as your rise to object to the way the movie concludes with two standing ovations for two of its characters, an August voiceover explains to us curmudgeons that everyone deserves a standing ovation.

To that, I say boo.

MOVIES

Wonder

  • Directed by Stephen Chbosky. With Jacob Tremblay, Noah Jupe, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic and Mandy Patinkin. Distributed by Lionsgate.
  • Parents guide: PG (bullying)
  • Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
  • Playing at: Area theaters