“Wonder” is based on the R.J. Palacio novel about a little boy with a scarred and congenitally odd face, the result of a condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome. In a novel the reader pictures the boy’s face, but on screen we see it, and that’s the movie’s first challenge. The face must be dramatic enough to disturb and turn heads, and yet be something an audience can get used to and even warm to.
“Wonder” passes that first test and just about all the tests that follow. This would be an easy movie to get wrong. It presents a minefield for sentimentality, and the title itself is like a warning to stay away. Movies that promise “wonder” usually end up offering gooiness. But somehow “Wonder” picks its way through and makes its way to the end without succumbing to emotional falseness. Maybe a moment here or there feints in the wrong direction, but for the vast majority of its 113-minute running time, “Wonder” stays genuine and true.
The predicament of the little boy (Jacob Tremblay) — now about to start fifth grade after a life of home-schooling — is something anyone can understand and feel. The anxieties of starting a new school are real enough, but to go in knowing you’ll be stared at mercilessly would be awful. Likewise, there’s the torment of the parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), who have to turn him loose and let him fend for himself in an environment almost guaranteed to be cruel.
But if that were the whole movie, what a monotonous experience it would be: little kids being mean to another kid until, finally, the movie is long enough to stop. Instead “Wonder” is more a family story, in which the troubles and aspirations of each member are explored and taken seriously.
In a way the key to the “Wonder” isn’t the little boy, but Izabel Vidovic as his 15-year-old sister, Olivia. She is the normal kid who won the Russian roulette game of her parents’ genetics, but she has the difficulty of being the invisible sibling, the one who must fend for herself. In a lesser and more typical story, Olivia would be acting out, but “Wonder” pursues the more difficult and rewarding course of making something interesting of a nice girl, coping quietly with her own challenges and disappointments.
These challenges, which are those of an average teenager carrying no unusual burden, arrest our attention, partly because of good storytelling but mainly because of Vidovic. This is a young actress with an Olivia de Havilland-like capacity to make something arresting out of normality and decency. In routine scenes her acting hints at depths that the movie, ultimately, allows her to show.
In a similar way, the parents are not standard issue, but a specific relationship, and what a brilliant idea to pair warm, laid-back Owen Wilson with Julia Roberts, who is only slightly less easygoing than a pile driver. Of course, these opposites would be attracted to each other. Of course, they’d get married, and of course, an ongoing family crisis would accentuate their natural tendencies — his to be loving, and hers to be as fierce and protective as a mama bear.
In real life, niceness isn’t boring. Yes, people acting nice to get something is boring and all too frequent, but actual, dynamic goodness is magnetic — but hard to convey on a movie screen. “Wonder” hits a few moments too hard and flirts with corniness at times but makes something active and compelling from the spectacle of nice people trying to do right, and it’s a refreshing thing to see.