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Wonder leans on its great cast to tell an engaging, warmhearted family story

Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, and Owen Wilson star in a movie based on the best-selling novel.

Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The old maxim exhorting us to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is the thesis of Wonder — it’s even quoted at the end of the film — and Wonder handles it well, following a boy named August Pullman, his family, and his friends through a year of change in their lives.

August, nicknamed Auggie, was born with a chromosome condition that causes facial deformities, and after 27 surgeries he still looks noticeably different from other kids his age. His perspective on his life is certainly the core of the movie, and that’s part of what made the novel it’s based on a best-seller.

But Wonder doesn’t focus exclusively on Auggie, and that’s its biggest strength. The film’s bigger story is that even though Auggie’s family — his parents, his sister, even his dog — has bent their lives around his, they, too, are dealing with their own struggles. So are Auggie’s friends, and even his enemies.

While the movie’s premise feels prone to the maudlin, it’s ultimately quite poignant; Wonder is a family-oriented tale in which people make mistakes in the way they treat one another, but learn and grow in a way that doesn’t feel condescending to the film’s younger audience. Importantly, Wonder is also a movie about a young boy with a condition that makes him stand out from his peers — but it doesn’t valorize or patronize him by painting him as a saint. It respects Auggie too much for that.

Wonder is a sensitive exploration of the many ways people struggle in ordinary life

The movie picks up as Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is getting ready to attend school for the first time, a new fifth-grader who’s been homeschooled thus far. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), his father Nate (Owen Wilson), and his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) are all supportive and encouraging, but he’s not convinced it’s a step he is ready to take, and when they walk him to school through the park on his first day, he’s reticent to take off his beloved astronaut helmet.

Thanks to the school’s kindly headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), Auggie has already met three of his classmates: chatty Charlotte (Elle McKinnon); quiet Jack Will (Noah Jupe); and two-faced Julian (Bryce Gheisar), who performs niceness around adults but harbors a serious mean streak. He soon meets another classmate, the immediately kind-to-him Summer (Millie Davis), and likes his energetic teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), but school is still difficult for Auggie. He knows the other kids are looking at him, even if nobody is being mean. Every day makes him question whether he’ll ever be able to feel like he truly fits in.

Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in Wonder.

His sister Via, meanwhile, is in high school and discovering that her lifelong best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has changed over the summer. She joins theater and makes a new friend, Justin (Nadji Jeter), but simultaneously grapples with feeling as if she’s in second place regarding her parents’ affections — something she’s grown used to, given Auggie’s great need for care and attention.

Via’s story is told from her perspective, which adds layers to our understanding of her, and Wonder delves into the perspectives of other characters, too: Jack Will, Miranda, Isabel, and even Julian. It turns out that learning about other people’s fears, wants, hurts, and joys can make everything those people do — the bad stuff and the good stuff — make more sense. And as the school year goes on, they all grow in their maturity and relationships with one another, and in their ability to experience empathy.

The film leans on strong characters and a strong cast to tell a warm, meaningful story

Wonder succeeds largely on the strength of its cast, which includes a bevy of stellar performers led by Tremblay’s sensitive portrayal of Auggie as a complicated kid who worries about his classmates but sometimes yells at his parents and sister, too.

Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Jacob Tremblay, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder
Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Jacob Tremblay, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder.
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

But it’s also a tricky story to tell without tipping over into manipulation. Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) adapted R.J. Palacio’s source novel into a screenplay with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, and it neatly avoids becoming a didactic after-school special about why it’s important for people to be kind by letting the story work as a character piece, full of humor and warmth and conflict and fun. Sometimes the adults deliver speeches about growing up and dealing with life, but those speeches always seem to flow organically from their characters.

Of course, Wonder is still a moderately sentimental film. And as a movie called Wonder that’s aimed at families, that characteristic is practically in its DNA. But it earns the sentiment. Auggie struggles, and so do his parents, and his sister, and his friends. And so do we all. A bit of kindness is never out of place. And these days, it seems more important than ever.

Wonder opens in theaters on November 17.