'Wonder' has an earnest message about kindness that helps offset its After School Special flaws

Popular mythology notwithstanding, childhood is difficult for almost everyone. But especially so for 10-year-old August Pullman.

"I know I'm not an ordinary kid," Auggie Pullman explains in the opening paragraph of the young adult novel "Wonder." Yes, he does ordinary things, "but I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."

Rare genetic abnormalities, it turns out, have led to facial disfiguration so severe that even after 27 surgeries Auggie begs off being specific. "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

As written by R.J. Palacio, Auggie's experiences in the world at large and middle school in particular became a Y.A. phenomenon, selling millions of copies and leading to an unapologetically sweet film about the power of and necessity for kindness in the world.

As directed by Stephen Chbosky, who previously filmed his own novel, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Auggie's story is one your heart goes out to if you're in the mood, but as written by Chbosky and Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne, its path is not as smooth as the book's.

Though it keeps Auggie's fine sense of humor and his remarkably even-keeled attitude about himself and his situation, the movie version of "Wonder" feels more pat and After School Special-ish than the novel, the kind of film that thinks if one version of "I Think We're Going To Be Friends" on the soundtrack is good, two would be better.

But on the plus side the film does maintain the book's effective structure, which involves telling its story from the perspective of multiple characters, and it’s got a narrative brimming with a variety of serious-seeming problems, all of which are capable of being resolved if people simply acted according to their better natures.

And though the nominal stars here are Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, the best thing "Wonder" has got going for it is the remarkable young actor Jacob Tremblay in the role of Auggie.

Exceptional as the imprisoned boy in 2015's "Room," Tremblay has the kind of innate integrity and an ability to actually create character that is unusual in an actor so young.

Tremblay makes Auggie a recognizable, credible individual, a real person even under the carefully calibrated facial prosthetics that took 90 minutes to apply every day.

But, remarkable as Auggie is, parents Nate (Wilson) and Isabel (Roberts) worry about letting him go from being home-schooled in the family's cushy brownstone in a fantasy New York to becoming a new student at fictional Beecher Prep.

"It's like leading a lamb to the slaughter," says dad, but mom feels that because everyone will be starting fresh in the first year of middle school, it's now or never for their son.

He's reluctant to give up the kid-sized NASA space helmet he uses to deflect stares when he walks on the street, but Auggie knows it’s time too.

To make things easier, Beecher's ever-so-kindly principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) has him come a few days earlier and meet with some of his fellow students, especially two boys who will become crucial as the year progresses.

Though he fools the adults, Julian (Bryce Gheisar) slowly morphs into a bully who makes Auggie's life unhappy. And though Jack Will (Noah Jupe) seems like he might be a friend, things are not quite that simple.

Auggie's older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) goes to a different school, but is also a key player in his story. She's one of Auggie's biggest boosters, but that doesn't mean she is without problems of her own.

That includes the way her parents, in their zeal to watch over Auggie, never seem to have any time for her. "My mom has a great eye," she says poignantly of Isabel's gifts as an artist. "I wish she'd use it to look at me."

Via is one of several people whose first person point of view we get to hear and see just as we do in the book. This group includes Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), Via's former best friend who is now giving her the runaround. Space is not made, though it is in the book, for Justin (Nadji Jeter), a cute guy who catches Via's eye.

Despite all these people orbiting around him, Auggie remains "Wonder's" main event, and though its upbeat earnestness is ever-present, it has the integrity to understand that not even kindness can eliminate all problems.

No one can hear Auggie ask his mom, "Why do I have to be so ugly, is it always going to matter?" without being impressed by his fortitude, nor hear his mom's honest "I don't know" answer without being moved by the reply.

------------

'Wonder'

Rated: PG, for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: In general release

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°