MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Wonder’ touches the heart without overdoing it emotionally

Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts share a scene in “Wonder.”
Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts share a scene in “Wonder.” Lionsgate Publicity

Yes, “Wonder” has that bring-two-fists-full-of-tissues-to-the-theater look about it.

And hey, bring a couple. Maybe even a few.

The highly satisfying drama is, after all, a story about a boy, Jacob Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman, who lives with dramatic facial disfigurations due to a gene carried by both of his normal-looking parents. However, “Wonder” never feels manipulative, the filmmakers behind it eschewing the idea of going for every last tear they probably could get if they wanted

“I know I’m not an ordinary 10-year-old,” Auggie says in some opening narration, adding that he likes to do ordinary-boy things such as playing video games. “I just don’t look ordinary when I’m doing these things.”

Advertisement

Auggie lives a comfortable New York City life with his adoring mother, Isabel (a terrific Julia Roberts), his kind father, Nate (an understated Owen Wilson), and his understanding older sister, Via (a steady Izabela Vidovic). He has undergone 27 surgeries, many of which were for cosmetic reasons.

Homeschooled his whole life by his mother, Auggie is about start attending school, entering the fifth grade in a private school. He is, understandably, “petrified.”

His concerns aren’t exactly allayed after the head of the school, Mr. Tushman (“You can laugh at that,” Mandy Patinkin’s character assures him. “I’ve heard them all.”), arranges for three soon-to-be classmates to give Auggie a tour. One of the three, a spoiled boy named Julian (Bryce Gheisar), isn’t all that sensitive to Auggie’s insecurities.

Auggie is a mess that night at home, and his mother tells him that, as much as she wants him to go to this school, he doesn’t have to if he really doesn’t want to. The face of pride and delight Roberts makes when Auggie tells Isabel he still will go is simply priceless. (It’s likely a tissue-requiring moment.)

Julian is even worse to Auggie once school starts, making fun of his “Star Wars”-inspired hair braid and giving him the “Star Wars”-inspired name “Darth Hideous,” Julian acting every bit the insecure child who tries to put someone else down to feel big.

On the other hand, Auggie makes a friend in the other boy who helped with the tour, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who accepts he’s just one of those people who gets called by his first and last name. Their friendship is sweet, but it will be tested — if in a rather predictable way.

As much as “Wonder” centers around Auggie, the story — adapted from the 2012 book of the same name by R.J. Palacio by screenwriter Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) — is told in segments by other characters via their narrations, as well. The most notable is Via, who laments but doesn’t condemn that her parents’ world spins around Auggie.

While she isn’t confronted with the same challenges as her brother, it nonetheless is a tough time for Via. She greatly misses her grandmother, who, recognizing how much attention Auggie would need from his parents, lavished hers on Via. And then there’s Via’s longtime best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who, since returning from a summer camp, is giving a cold shoulder to Via.

(One of the nice things “Wonder” does is eventually give us the perspectives of Jack Will and Miranda during these times, which fills in blanks that need filling in.)

Under the direction of Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), “Wonder” presents us with a number of nicely done scenes, such as when Isabel and Nate drop Auggie off for the first day of school, and Nate explains to him that while it’s OK to wear the space helmet that covers his face, it isn’t appropriate for school. He also explains to her he shouldn’t walk any closer to school with his son because while he is cool, most dads are not and therefore it’s generally an uncool thing.

“Please God, let them be nice to him,” Isabel says in Nate’s ear as Auggie walks away.

Even in a supporting role, Roberts (“Money Monster”) is at the top of her game, hitting the right notes in scene after scene. And while he’s not asked to do as much, Wilson (“Zoolander 2”) gives a very nice performance as the amiable and admirable Nate.

The heavy lifting, though, is left to Tremblay, who made an impression in 2015’s “Room” and more recently could be seen in “The Book of Henry.” While he isn’t, well, a wonder, he makes Auggie likeable and believably vulnerable. You won’t have any trouble rooting for this kid.

As with her character, it might be easy to overlook Vidovic, whose credits are mainly of the television variety. She makes Via sympathetic and appealing, so it’s also easy to root for her to get together with the friendly Justin (Nadji Jeter), a new classmate who nudges her into joining the drama club

“Wonder” can be just a little clunky in spots, and it feels as though it could have ended about 10 minutes sooner, even before its big multiple-tissues moment at the end of the school year.

But a little extra time with these characters portrayed by these actors and overseen by these filmmakers is far from a burden — even if it may mean one or two more tissues being used.

‘Wonder’

In theaters: Nov. 17.

Rated: PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language.

Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Stars (of four): 3.