By JOSEPH W. SMITH III
“Wonder” is a wonder.
It’s incredible that a film with so much grief could be so funny -- and in the end, so thoroughly inspiring.
I’m leery of movies about handicapped folks; they have built-in “aww”-factor that invites film-makers to focus on sentiment, dropping the ball on other vital factors such as character, dialog and authenticity.
“Wonder” never drops the ball.
On the contrary: Soaring to the top of the year’s best-list, it scores a touchdown on nearly every play.
In this powerhouse based on R. J. Palacio’s bestseller, Jacob Tremblay -- so effective in 2015’s “Room” -- plays the soulful and clever Auggie Pullman, whose horrific facial deformity plagues his sudden entry into fifth-grade after years of classes at home with his mom (Julia Roberts).
Though it’s a tear-jerker from start to finish, the film refuses to rely solely on Auggie’s plight for its power. Following Palacio’s lead, “Wonder” sequentially hones in on different characters around the protagonist, showing us that he is not the only person in crisis, that everyone is a case of “more than meets the eye -- all the while weaving a many-layered narrative that keeps on turning misery into magic.
There’s Auggie’s older sister, Via, whose life has always taken a backseat to her brother’s constant calamities. Dumped by her only friend, Via falls for a gallant fellow-student named Justin.
There’s Auggie’s classmate Jack, who was asked to befriend the misfit and did so unwillingly -- until he discovered what a great kid Auggie was.
And Via’s pal, Miranda; and Auggie’s mom; and his dad; and his teacher; and the principal -- all emerging as fully realized individuals, thanks largely to sensational performances in every single role.
It’s tempting to say Roberts carries this movie -- and indeed, “Wonder” is a bracing reminder of what a terrific actress she is (just in case any of us had forgotten). But Roberts is ably supplemented by Mandy Patinkin (principal); Owen Wilson (dad); Nadji Jeter (Justin); Noah Jupe (Jack); Daveed Diggs (teacher); Kyle Breitkopf and Millie Davis (school friends Miles and Summer); and especially Izabela Vidovic, so enchantingly effective as Via that I’ll wager her agent’s voicemail is already filling up with other offers.
All these actors imbue the film with a vitality and realism which -- together with Stephen Chbosky’s assured direction -- sweeps us into its emotional hurricane without ever feeling cheap, maudlin or manipulative. “Wonder” works partly because of its laugh-out-loud humor, and partly because so much of its potency flows from happiness rather than pain.
I often get choked up in movies, but rarely do I have to take my glasses off and wipe out my eyes (this is embarrassing for an adult male carrying a critic’s pen and notebook!). “Wonder” did it to me several times -- and trust me, I was not the only one.
Grab several loved ones and see this amazing film right away.
But grab a box of tissues too.
directed by Stephen Chbosky
Run time: 113 min.
* * * * (out of four)
Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language