“Philosophy begins in wonder,” Socrates said. Perhaps love does, too. At least parental love does: the matchless wonder at this other person who comes from you, yet isn’t you.
What happens when that person, the overwhelming focus of your love, is severely deformed? In the case of Auggie Pullman, the young hero of R.J. Palacio’s best-selling children’s novel, “Wonder,” the deformity is facial. Auggie’s appearance simply heightens the wonder his parents feel, making them love and protect him all the more. It also means the rest of the world feels a very different kind of wonder at the sight of him.
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson star as Auggie’s parents. But the movie’s real star is Jacob Tremblay, who did so much for “Room” (2015). Roberts and Wilson are fine, as is Izabela Vidovic, as Auggie’s older sister, Via. Also Mandy Patinkin, bless him, does his bushy-bearded Mandy Patinkin thing, playing the middle-school principal every parent and pupil dreams of.
But it’s Tremblay who makes Auggie so believable, so affecting, so human. Also so frequently funny. Arjen Tuiten’s unnervingly expert facial prosthetics make you want to look away from Auggie at first. In fact, much of the early part of the movie he wears an astronaut helmet, to conceal his face. There’s a reason Auggie’s favorite day of the year is Halloween. Soon enough, Tremblay’s performance makes you want to embrace him.
“Wonder” follows the course of the school year. Auggie is starting fifth grade, having previously been home-schooled by his mother. So it’s a really, really good thing that Patinkin is a dream principal. How do the other kids treat him? Next question. As for Via, she’s starting her freshman year in high school. Cannily, the focus isn’t just on Auggie. In a very different way, Via has her own challenges. She both dotes on Auggie and understandably resents all the attention his condition requires from their parents. Auggie’s deformity is genetic, and Via’s self-aware enough to tell her new boyfriend, “In another world, I’d look like him.”
It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better suited to this material than Stephen Chbosky, who directed and co-wrote the script (with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne). Chbosky directed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), which he adapted from his own young adult novel, so he knows from being in school and being a misfit. He also did the screenplay for this year’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” the latest version of the most celebrated tale of how deceptive physical appearance can be.
Much as there is right with “Wonder,” there’s just as much that isn’t. Emotionally, the movie rarely feels false. That means there can be some deeply unsettling moments. Don’t go without having tissues handy. Yet, perhaps in an attempt to compensate, much of the rest of the movie is anything other than false. There is not a single daytime scene where the sun isn’t shining — in New York — in fall — and winter. Really? The Pullmans live in a Brooklyn brownstone that’s so comfortably luxurious it could only be a movie set. As for the one scholarship boy at the private school Auggie goes to, the kitchen in his family’s apartment looks like a hand-me-down from the Pullmans’. Auggie’s homeroom teacher is so idealistic he gave up Wall Street for education. Maybe he’s the one paying for the brownstone and kitchen.
“Wonder” doesn’t sugarcoat the pain experienced by Auggie and his family. That’s the whole point of the movie. So instead it sugarcoats everything else. Auggie, bless him, stops putting on that astronaut helmet. The movie does things differently. It wears a space suit and never takes it off.
Directed by Stephen Chbosky. Written by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne; based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. Starring Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 113 minutes. PG (thematic elements, including bullying, and some mild language).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.