I am 52-years-old.
I'm a paraplegic and a double amputee who was born with spina bifida.
In other words, I've always been different.
In most ways, I adjusted to this life of difference at an early age and decided I would not allow those who couldn't understand or those who wouldn't accept to define me.
But, the simple truth is I've gone very few days in my life without being laughed or stared at or otherwise being reminded that I am, in fact, different from most human beings.
From my first day leaving the sanctuary of a school for the disabled for the uncertainty of a third grade public school classroom, I was laughed at for the way I looked, for the way I ate, for the way that I moved myself around, and for a myriad of other things that were, for the most part, out of my control.
As a disabled adult, having lived long past my life expectancy, I spent far too many years willing to date women who loved my mind and heart but not my body.
Trust me, they would say it.
In ways both direct and indirect, I've been reminded of my challenges, my weaknesses, my inadequacies and much more...time and time and time again. Truthfully, it's one of the reasons I stopped asking for help when it was needed. You can only take so much humiliation in a life. Ya' know?
Wonder may not be the best film of 2017. In fact, Wonder is not the best film of 2017. However, I have very little hesitation in saying that I believe Wonder may very well be my favorite film of 2017. If you think Wonder looks excessively corny and cheesy, you need to realize that the film is directed by Stephen Chbosky, director of the remarkable The Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of the best teen/young adult flicks to enter theaters in recent years.
Chbosky infuses Wonder with a relentless dedication to truth and optimism and a fierce dedication to the simple idea that we all deserve a standing ovation at least once in our lives.
I sobbed during Wonder, not just discreet and occasional tears but tears of familiarity and old festering wounds and, at times, tears that felt almost like a primal scream of sorts. Oh, but I laughed, too. I laughed a lot, because that's how life is and Chbosky, a stunningly insightful writer/director, understands that completely. He understands that even the most inspirational people are incredibly real people with joys and sorrows, successes and failures. So, while Wonder may very well be cheesy and corny and impossibly life-affirming, it's a film that earns these things through the words and the deeds of its characters, characters that comprise one of the best ensemble casts of 2017.
The film, based upon a novel by R.J. Palacio of the same name, centers around August "Augie" Pullman, who was born with a facial deformity that, even after 27 surgeries symbolized by his mother's neatly organized collection of his hospital wristbands, has led to his early childhood being lived out in the safety and security of his family's brownstone home where his mother has homeschooled him while his father and older sister have largely doted upon him throughout the years.
Then, fifth grade happens.
Mom, Isabel, is a maternal wonder played to utter perfection by Julia Roberts. Having sacrificed her own dreams for the welfare of her son, Isabel is itching for a return to the real world having left graduate school with only her thesis to complete following Augie's birth.
The decision is made. For fifth grade, Augie, seldom seen outside of his home without his beloved astronaut helm, will enter a "real school," or at least as real a school can be when it's an obviously upper crust private school helmed by the paternal educator Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin).
You may be thinking to yourself that you know exactly how all of this is going to end and, to be honest, you may very well mostly be right despite the fact that Wonder does, in fact, take a few twists and turns along the way.
Jacob Tremblay, whose break-out role was as Jack in 2015's Academy Award-winning film Room, is simply extraordinary as Augie, vulnerably embodying a young boy whose life has been the center of his family's universe for years, for understandable reasons, yet who also grows into the realization that there's a world out there that is scary yet, quite possibly, so so worth it. For those who wondered if Tremblay's remarkable performance in Room was a one off fluke by a kid, Wonder should leave no doubt that this is one kid with some serious talent.
Kudos to Stephen Chbosky for stepping back and allowing Julia Roberts to breathe life into the role of Isabel, for once not being asked to be "Julia Roberts" but, instead, to be this wonderfully amazing and insightful and tender and intelligent woman whose own story arc over the course of the film is tremendous to watch unfold. I have zero qualms about saying that this is Roberts's best performance in quite some time and it's pitch perfect with the rest of the ensemble cast.
While Owen Wilson, as the father, doesn't have quite the emotional range to play here, he's perfectly cast alongside Roberts and radiates the kind of quiet paternal presence that makes you wish he was your dad. Wilson has most of the film's genuine laughs, as one might expect, yet he gives authenticity to those laughs and makes sure we're never laughing at anyone in the film.
Finally, there's Izabela Vidovic, who has most recently been seen as Taylor in The Fosters, and whose performance as Augie's doting yet conflicted sister Via serves up a storyline that should feel extraneous yet somehow becomes essential. She's a high school student dealing with the unexpected loss of best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell, The Last Tycoon) and the equally unexpected first spark with a boy, Justin (Nadji Jeter, Spider-Man television series). Vidovic believably, rather miraculously, captures the complexities of a teen girl who fiercely loves her brother yet who has also put her own needs aside for years to not overly burden her parents until she finds herself reaching the point of actually needing them. It's a beautifully rich performance of a character type often portrayed as a caricature.
Noah Jupe, recently seen in the relatively unseen Suburbicon, is tremendous as young Jack Will, an essentially good kid at the school, Beecher Prep, on a scholarship and who struggles between wanting to be "in" and wanting to be a friend to Augie. Similarly, Millie Davis (Orphan Black) shines as Summer and Bryce Gheisar (A Dog's Purpose) adds layers to the difficult role of Julian, the student who seemingly has the hardest time adjusting to Augie's presence. Of course, as always, Mandy Patinkin is simply top notch.
There are so many ways that Wonder could have gone wrong, yet it never does. Relentless in its devotion to kindness and the power all of us have to see differently and to make a difference in each other's lives, Wonder is a rather magnificent little film that left me remembering my past and those painful moments in my own journey yet also feeling grateful for those who break through my own astronaut helmet with a fierce dedication to presence and beauty and wonder.
The lensing by Don Burgess is the kind of lensing that lingers on faces and isn't afraid to lean into its subjects, while Marcelo Zarvos's original music never hits a false note.
The honest truth is that I haven't stopped thinking about Wonder since I watched it. As he did with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky takes a story that could have so easily become a formulaic drudge and turns it into a mini-masterpiece that celebrates humanity by telling an honest story that feels like it could plop itself down in the middle of our own lives. It's an intelligent film that quietly accomplishes so much from telling an honest, positive story about someone "different" to acknowledging the truth of life in that family with all its glories and all its warts to remarkably refreshing stories of diversity within the film and, one must note, a reminder that even the most stubborn of us is not beyond a redemption of sorts.
We need each other. We really, really do...and Wonder seems to recognize that and celebrate that and give us a map of sorts to find our way back to that.
Wonder may not be the best film of 2017, but oh my...Wonder is one of those films that barged its way through all of my critical defenses and made me absolutely surrender to it and reminded me why I fell in love with film to begin with as I felt like a different human being, emotionally cleansed and immensely grateful, as I headed for the auditorium door thankful that Augie and the rest of his universe had entered my life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic