Life is hard for the Pullmans, the affluent Brooklyn family at the heart of the watchable but underachieving Wonder — or at least that's what this semi-comic weepie sets out to demonstrate. Yet the Pullmans' troubles, which stem from their youngest member's medical condition, turn out to be as superficial as the boy's disability.
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) was born with a facial disfigurement that's been only partially repaired by numerous surgeries. He's not as singular in appearance as the protagonists of The Elephant Man or Mask, but the kid's doting parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, both in their customary modes) have been reluctant to expose him to the cruelties of his peers.
The story transpires over one school year and begins when 10-year-old Auggie is about leave his home-schooling cocoon and enter an upscale academy. There he will be protected by a sensitive principal (Mandy Patinkin) and a home-room teacher (Daveed Diggs) who on the first day of school instructs his charges to "choose kind." He calls this a "precept," but it sounds a lot like an ad-campaign tagline.
Auggie, a fan of space programs both real and fictional, is a science prodigy, which boosts his status. Yet dad and especially mom worry about the other kids. Auggie soon finds a friend, Jack (Noah Jupe), but Jack is pressured to be mean by the class' pampered bully, Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Other students accuse Auggie of carrying "plague."
Meanwhile, older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) occasionally suspends her nurturing of Auggie to indulge her resentment that he rates most of the parental attention. And she's stunned when her only living confidante, lifelong friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), returns from summer vacation and ends their relationship.
Via's only remaining pal is her dead grandmother (Sonia Braga), whose consoling ghost waits faithfully for the girl on the beach at Coney Island. Yet Via's funk lasts only long enough to attract a potential boyfriend, Justin (Nadji Jeter), who encourages her to join the theater club. Before the movie ends, both Via and Auggie will be on stage, glorying in applause they've earned just as surely as the audience's sniffles. The kids are all right.
That's the problem with Wonder: None of the characters really has any major problem. (Not even Justin, whose parents are ultimately revealed to be the anti-Pullmans.) Director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky is reduced to assaulting an innocent animal to dribble a little pathos over this sundae-sweet tale.
Chbosky previously made The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a high-school-outsider saga that was edgier than Wonder, yet still stuffed with too-good-to-be-true moments. Both movies reflect an inability to distinguish between dramatic development and wish fulfillment. (The closest link between the two is the character of Via, a reprise of the Ideal Girl embodied by Emma Watson in Wallflower.)
More kid-oriented than Chbosky's previous film, Wonder includes sing-along ditties, video game epiphanies, and fantasy sequences that invoke Auggie's love for Star Wars. But the movie's biggest fantasy is a world where there are no fundamental conflicts, only misunderstandings. If those can't be dispelled in time for Christmas, they'll surely be banished by the start of summer vacation.