Back when Justice League disappointingly opened to less than $100 million for its opening weekend, a true success story was playing out in the number two spot. A little $20 million film that was tracking at about $10-12 million for the weekend, exceeded expectations with an impressive $27 million opening weekend. In some media outlets, this became a more significant box office story over the Justice League debacle because no one really saw it coming. Sure, the film earned solid reviews and is based on a best selling book, but there was nothing to indicate that it would resonate with the moviegoing public the way it did.
The film in question is Wonder and since it’s impressive opening weekend it has become a true breakout hit. The film is a lock for $100 million at the box office and there is a possibility that it can prove to be a true player during the holiday movie season and gross close to $150 million when it’s all said and done. This is an impressive feat and it’s a feat that is much deserved. I expected Wonder to wallow in manipulation to get a reaction from the audience but it turned out to be a truly genuine and poignant story that is aided by strong performances, particularly from the young actor, Jacob Tremblay.
Until the first day of fifth grade, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has been home-schooled. The reason is obvious the first time we meet him: his appearance, the result of more than two-dozen operations, is a mass of scars and misshapen tissue that illustrate how far medical science has to go before claiming victory over facial deformities. Auggie knows the reactions he will provoke: stares and uncomfortable glances away. He’s prepared for these things and for the aversion and isolation that will accompany them but they still hurt nonetheless. His educators, especially English teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), are helpful, as is the headmaster of the private school, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), but Auggie’s first day isn’t a good one. Things improve, however, when he makes his first friend: Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the first boy brave enough to risk being ostracized by bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar) for socializing with someone who looks different from his peers.
I actually watched a 20/20 special on this very subject before I went to see Wonder. It had been on my DVR since the opening weekend of the film and watching that real-life story of a similar situation, actually made some of the plot points of this particular film stronger. The special touched on the child’s particular struggles of dealing with an appearance that could have him shunned by his peers but also touched on the hardships of his parents. The parents were dealing with raising a child in a society that tends to mock those who are different but also dealing with their different approaches to handling the situation, which brought about its own conflicts between the couple. The film touches on this subject just enough to effectively show that this is a family issue. From the parents to siblings, to the child directly afflicted, this is a struggle that can put a strain on the family unit as a whole. The divergent parenting styles exhibit by Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), prove to be one of the strongest aspects of the film because it’s honest and true to life.
Also, a worthy subplot is one involving Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s older sister. Via’s experience is that of the “normal” sibling who becomes an afterthought in a family where the parents’ attention is focused on the special-needs child. Via doesn’t openly resent that Auggie gets the bulk of the attention available from her mother and father, but it’s obvious that she craves more in the way of affection and validation. Her life goes into a tailspin when her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), inexplicably breaks contact with her. Fortunately, when one door closes another opens and Via finds solace in school theater and a new boyfriend, Justin (Nadji Jeter). Again, this aspect of the plot is strong because it shows that these issues are far-reaching. How do you express your need for attention when you know your sibling has it much harder than you? The film does an excellent job displaying these conflicted emotions through the sister and it could have some in a similar situation, truly identifying with her.
At the heart of this story is Auggie and Jacob Tremblay once again proves he’s a young actor to watch. One could argue that he deserved an Oscar nomination for his role in Room, which was just as strong as Brie Larson’s, who took home the gold. He received numerous positive notices for his turn there and he displays, even more, range here. This is a character that could be ultimately tragic but Tremblay turns him into a truly inspirational figure. This kid has shown so much potential in a short amount of time and I honestly can’t wait to see what he does next. Also displaying a maturity beyond her years is Izabela Vidovic as Via, Auggie’s sister. I’ve never seen her in anything before but have heard she has appeared on numerous TV shows. This role should ensure that she gets more substantial parts in the future. The adult roles, filled admirably by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Mandy Patinkin, are mostly regulated to the background but this isn’t a criticism. This isn’t their story, it’s Auggie’s and their star power never threatens to distract from that. If anything their names above the title get people to see the film and that’s a role they serve nicely.
I was aware that Wonder was based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio but I had no clue the film was directed and co-written (along with Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad) by Stephen Chbosky. He is responsible for writing the New York Times bestselling coming of age novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, which he adapted himself into a feature film that is one of my favorite movies of all time. He wrote that particular project with an honesty that continues to resonate and he brings that same sensibility to this project. It would be easy for Wonder to toy with our emotions and make us cry and cheer during all the right moments (and some say it is guilty of this) but its heart is in the right place. I didn’t go in expecting much but came out thinking the film was one of the true surprises of the year. The success it has found is much deserved and maybe those who see it, the young and the old, will learn a little more about tolerance and embracing others for their differences because that is what makes us all truly unique.
Reel Talk gives Wonder 3.5 Reels