If narrative art works best through suggestion — by making its points indirectly, by teasing and prompting us to discover meaning for ourselves — then the modern family movie presents an interesting challenge. How do you tell a story in a way that’s clear and plainspoken enough for younger viewers while still finding ways to bring subtlety and depth to the material? Wonder, the story of a young boy with craniofacial disorder and the people around him, opts not for concealment of its themes but accumulation. It tempers its fairly blunt narrative approach by constantly shifting its perspective. It starts off as the portrait of a troubled child, but expands to become a film about community.
His features under prosthetic makeup, Room’s Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie Pullman, a 10-year-old who has had 27 surgeries on his face and has been homeschooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) through elementary school. We never really learn much about Auggie’s condition; there’s no reciting of medical details or prognoses and diagnoses — though the boy’s fascination with science does subtly nod, perhaps, to the fact that he’s had to spend much of his life around doctors and clinicians.
Entering middle school isn’t easy for anybody, but it’s especially hard for Auggie, who has for years worn an astronaut helmet in public, hiding himself in play, and now really doesn't want to deal with the other kids’ disdain and disapproval. As he wanders helmet-free into his school on his first day, with his mom murmuring, “Dear God, please make them be nice to him,” it’s impossible not to feel exposed right along with him: The crowd of kids parts like the Red Sea; faces turn; conversations stop; the snickering begins, muted.
But Auggie isn’t some impressionable innocent. Even at this young age, he has developed a somewhat playful bitterness, a sarcastic and self-effacing streak: He’s keenly aware of the way people behave around him, even of the way that they hide their true feelings. He’s surprised, however, when one kid, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), makes a point of becoming his friend, sitting with him at lunch, sharing a desk in class and playing video games after school. (They also cheat on a pop quiz together, a refreshing bit of rebellious and consequence-free bonding for a family film.) But ironically, it’s this closeness, this long-overdue connection with another kid, that winds up leaving Auggie vulnerable to hurt later on.
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Auggie narrates the early scenes of Wonder, but the movie isn’t just about him. Soon, the narration begins to jump from character to character, exploring the emotional ecosystem that’s developed around this young man. His older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has learned over the years that she will always be a lower priority for their parents. “Auggie is the sun,” she tells us in voiceover, a touch of regret in her voice. “And my dad and mom and me are the planets orbiting the sun.” Via is starting high school with her own, more mundane concerns: Her closest friend in the world, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), has suddenly stopped talking to her. And there’s a boy (Nadji Jeter) that she likes. And she’s wondering if she should try out for drama class. These are all problems for which a young girl might want to turn to her mom for advice, but Isabel has given her life over so completely to Auggie’s care that she really can’t be bothered. One person’s total devotion, in other words, can mean another’s neglect.
The film expands even further with its perspectives: We also hear from Miranda, as well as from Jack Will. This builds our empathy, allowing us to understand that all these people — even the supposedly cruel ones — have their reasons. It’s also a novel way to introduce nuance into the broad-strokes, high-stakes world of middle-school bullies and victims, of cool kids and losers. And as we veer further from Auggie and his predicament, the characters’ interactions begin to feel universal.
It all works because Wonder has a gentle disposition to begin with, a stylistic reserve to offset the directness of its discourse. The movie has no frills — no stylistic indulgences, no narrative curlicues, no calculated character quirks. It’s one of the quietest films I’ve seen this year; even a middle-school cafeteria is curiously hushed. That may make it seem undernourished to some, but it also speaks to a certain modesty — one that pays emotional dividends.
Late in the film, Miranda’s drama class puts on a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that old standby of every high school theatre department. At first, I was concerned: Was Wonder about to airlift the famously devastating climax of Wilder’s play onto the screen to jerk some easy tears out of us? The answer to that was … well, yes. (To be fair, I had already burst into tears several times already before Our Town showed up.) But there is perhaps more here: Wilder’s play is all about the virtues of humility and simplicity, and the quiet power of accumulating points of view. And Our Town’s barrenness, its open and unadorned stage, is there for us to fill with our experiences. So maybe this little movie about a kid with a facial disorder isn’t really about a kid with a facial disorder at all, but about whatever you and I choose to see in it. And if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.