Hollywood loves to recycle the same old same old, lest we forget some stories are universal to every generation. “Perks of a Wall Flower” director Stephen Chbosky’s family-friendly feature “Wonder” (*** OUT OF ****), about a ten-year old lad with facial deformities, reminds us that physical looks aren’t everything. Movies about people with malformed faces have been around since the days of silent movies. Mind you, this genre of films can be divided into two kinds: those where the disfigured folks have their looks surgically reconstructed and those who endure their abnormality without the benefit of change. Twenty-nine versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” about an ugly soul lurking in a church, have been released harkening as far as 1909. At least ten versions of the venerable “Phantom of the Opera” have been produced, as early as 1916. Joan Crawford made “A Woman’s Face” (1941) where she regained her good looks through surgery, and Mickey Rourke recovered his looks in the crime thriller “Johnny Handsome” (1989). Director David Lynch’s celebrated saga “The Elephant Man” (1980), a plea for tolerance for the less fortunate, ranks as probably most distinguished. This biographical, 19th century London, England, epic depicted the travails of a horrifically disfigured adult male, John Merrick, who was an otherwise wonderful person. Reconstructive surgery wasn’t an option for Merrick. Later, director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” (1985) dealt with real-life, twentieth-century teen Rocky Dennis afflicted with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia from birth that made his face appear misshapen and bloated like a caricature. “The Elephant Man” and “Mask” were far more graphic than “Wonder,” but each reflected the shock that occurred when normal people reacted to abnormal people. Typically, when we see somebody who doesn’t blend in with the rest of us, we tend to alienate and ridicule them. We treat them like circus freaks. Although it boasts a happy ending, “Wonder” doesn’t conclude with our protagonist emerging from surgery with a new face. He had to endure twenty-seven surgeries to look the way he does.
The charismatic hero of “Wonder” suffers from a rare hereditary genetic disorder known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The ears, eyes, cheekbones, and chin are deformed, and it ranges from mild to severe. Indeed, August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”) wears a plastic astronaut’s helmet in public to conceal his countenance as his parents. Auggie’s doting mom Isabel (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”) has been schooling him at home. Now, she can no longer adequately tutor him, because she lacks the experience to teach him about his favorite subject—science. Reluctantly, Nate Pullman (Owen Wilson of “No Escape”) and she enroll him at Beecher Prep School, but they do so with great trepidation. Isobel fears what lies ahead for her son as she watches him enter the school. “Dear God,” she pleads to herself, “please let them be nice to him.” Auggie has a face that resembles something a demented plastic surgeon assembled from spare parts that didn’t match. Nevertheless, despite his horrific appearance, Auggie is just another pre-teen who shares the same dreams and joys of any normal youngster. “Wonder” reminds us that just because all of us aren’t stamped from the same mould is no reason to estrange those with differences. Initially, when Auggie’s parents brought him to Beecher, the compassionate headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin of “The Princess Bride”), recruited three students of Auggie’s age to give him a tour.
No sooner has Auggie settled into his fifth-grade class than he becomes the object of derision. “What’s the deal with your face?” one cruel student inquires. “Darth HIDEOUS,” sneers another classmate, while one more compares Auggie with Freddy Krueger. Things reach crisis proportions when Auggie’s teacher discovers a classroom photo that Auggie has been digitally deleted from the picture. A note on the back of the photograph reads ugly people aren’t allowed in the picture. Gradually, Auggie makes friends, but his first and closest pal Jack Will (Noah Jupe of “Suburbicon”) unwittingly betrays him during a Halloween carnival. Jack confides in his obnoxious classmates that were he Auggie he would hang himself. Auggie overhears Jack because our young hero isn’t wearing his astronaut outfit as he had planned but came instead as a “Scream” demon. Jack regrets his treachery. Courageously, Auggie perseveres despite Jack’s duplicity. The gauntlet of insults that Auggie runs strengthens his resolve. After Mr. Tushman discovers the culprits who made the youngster’s life an ordeal, things turn one-hundred-eighty degrees for Auggie. Predictably, Auggie triumphs over his worst adversaries and emerges as the most popular student.
Director Stephen Chbosky and scenarists Steve Conrad of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and Jack Thorne of “A Long Way Down” adapted R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel. According to Palacio’s website, she served as “an art director and book jacket designer, designing covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction.” She had spent twenty years putting off writing her first novel until she realized she could dawdle no more. Ironically, she didn’t create the cover for her own novel as she had for some many other authors! The filmmakers have adhered faithfully to Palacio’s basic premise. We shouldn’t isolate others simply because they don’t mirror our own image. “Wonder” scrutinizes the dreadful consequences of bullying. Ultimately, Chbosby and company pull their punches with their saccharine treatment of the subject matter. Fortunately, “Wonder” doesn’t degenerate entirely into a sermonizing after-school special because Auggie has a self-depreciating sense of humor. The sticks and stones our young hero endures during his anguish transforms him into a resilient person instead of a hopeless cry-baby who capitulates in the face of a crisis. Jacob Tremblay delivers a sensitive, low-key performance beneath the layers of prosthetic make-up that he sports throughout this 113-minute, PG-rated, feel-good feature. Happily, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson restrain themselves, too. Sure, “Wonder” will tug at your heart-strings, but only those with glacial indifference to this little fellow’s labors will leave the theater with a dry eye.