Film & Television

Wonder : From Teachable Moment to Marvelous Movie

Auggie is played by Jacob Tremblay, whom we last saw as Brie Larson’s courageous little boy in Room. Here, his beautiful features are hidden behind prosthetics, but he’s still just as moving, turning in a rich performance through his voice, body and only the subtlest use of his eyes.

Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are Auggie’s parents. Roberts is less glamorous than she often is (and Wilson is less goofy). Together, they are tender and believable. They’re the parents you would want to have if you were Auggie, and the parents you would want to be if Auggie were your son.

Izabela Vidovic is magnetic and lovely as Via. Her story and struggles come as a bit of a surprise. When her best friend (Danielle Rose-Russell, also outstanding) inexplicably turns away from her, we realize that what Auggie is going through isn’t unique to him. We all want to belong, to be valued and to be loved. Loneliness is universal.

The themes in Wonder are so universal in fact, and so deftly dramatized that I didn’t even cringe when Via’s drama club presents Our Town and, as Emily, she recites the “Take me back up the hill to my grave” speech. As I alluded to earlier, the movie walks a very fine line between mawkish sentimentality and a poignant story. It succeeds rather brilliantly.

The supporting cast is first-rate. Mandy Patinkin is Dr. Tushman, the school’s wise and even-handed principal. (“Tush-face, Butt-man, Tuchus, I’ve heard all the jokes already,” he assures Auggie.) Daveed Diggs, recent Tony-winner for his virtuosic role as Jefferson in Broadway’s Hamilton, makes Mr. Browne the type of teacher you wish your daughter or son could have. Nadji Jeter is sweet as Via’s drama club love interest. All of the children, including Noah Jupe, Millie Davis, Elle McKinnon and Bryce Gheisar, among others, are just terrific. With the material lending itself to “good guys” and “bad guys,” none of the kids seems two-dimensional. They have hopes, fears and agendas, and they are trying to figure out who they are.

These are important messages to author R.J. Palacio (her real name is Raquel Jarmillo). “It’s not true that middle school has to be this horrible rite of passage,” she recently told PeopleTV. “It really doesn’t have to be that way … We can’t expect perfect behavior from our kids, but we can expect them at the very least to show each other kindness and a little respect.”

Jarmillo was working in publishing, designing book covers for major authors like Sue Grafton, Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie, when she wrote Wonder. Her first novel, it was followed by additional Auggie stories (including books about his friends), as well as a volume of Mr. Browne’s precepts.

Wonder, which has sold more than eight million copies, was the fruit of what parents call, “a teachable moment.” Jarmillo recalls, “I was in front of an ice cream store with my two sons and my younger son, who was only three at the time, saw a little girl that had a very significant craniofacial difference. He got a little scared and he started to cry.” Jarmillo pulled him out of the situation both for his sake and for the girl’s, but later regretted it.

“What I should have done, of course, is just turn to the little girl and maybe started up a conversation and shown by example that it was really nothing to be afraid of.” She began writing Wonder that night.

And we’re so fortunate that she did.

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