Director: Stephen Chbosky. Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Nadji Jeter, Bryce Gheisar. PG cert, 113 mins
“If you need to send a message, call Western Union!” the mogul Sam Goldwyn is meant to have declared, which hasn’t stopped Hollywood finding a million ways to teach us lessons then and since. Wonder was a children’s novel – a widely-read, unashamedly messagey heartbreaker by RJ Palacio – and to approach it as grown-up cinema wouldn’t help anyone.
The only way forward is to abandon cynicism at the door: that’s what the director Stephen Chbosky has done, in movie-izing this story about physical deformity and the playground as a last refuge for knee-jerk cruelty.
The main character is Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old born with a rare genetic condition that makes him look different – not Elephant Man different, or as gigantically so as Eric Stoltz’s character in the 1985 weepie Mask, but different enough. Until the point when the film begins, he’s been entirely home-schooled by his parents (Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts), and seeks refuge from staring eyes within an astronaut’s helmet.
“Please let them be nice to him!”, we hear Roberts pray as she releases her son on his first day in middle school, and Wilson gingerly takes the helmet away. Of course, being children, his classmates can’t help but stare and recoil, at least at first. The story is as much about their collective growth – their learning to look behind the surface – as Auggie’s maturing courage in facing the world.