Wonder
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts
Rated PG for thematic elements, including bullying, and some mild language
1 hr. 53 min.

It’s rare that I go see lighthearted movies. I’m more of a dark alley kind of guy. But Wonder occupies a different space, that area between cheer and sorrow where some very legitimate questions are asked: What’s the relationship between dreams and friendships? Who among us doesn’t have flaws that have to be overcome? And who accomplishes their goals in life simply by themselves?

Wonder is not just about a young boy with facial deformities. It explores several characters who wrestle with their own isolation, with being accepted and accepting others.

So if some of the film gets a bit drippy, I’m willing to give it a pass because the director and writer skillfully ride us through the highs and lows of each character and help us to understand that loneliness is not just a physical problem, it’s an emotional challenge that all of us deal with.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is about to enter fifth grade at a public school for the first time. He was born with severe facial deformities and has had to undergo numerous surgeries to correct his problems. But other than his face, he’s a normal boy with dreams of being an astronaut.

His mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), and father, Nate (Owen Wilson), feel that it’s time. He’s been home-schooled all his life and is a very bright boy, but Nate and Isabel believe that he needs both the expanded education and the exposure to kids in a real school environment.

Auggie’s not so sure. He’s comfortable at home, loves wearing his astronaut helmet, playing with his dog Daisy and hanging out with his sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic).

As you might guess, things don’t go well for Auggie the first day or, for that matter, the first month. Everyone stares at him. No one sits with him at lunch. Worst of all, his schoolmate Julian (Bryce Gheisar) and Julian’s friends harass him.

What makes Wonder unique is that Auggie’s life, the impact of his surgeries and the care required from his parents get explored from a broader perspective. Sections of the movie are devoted to Via, his eventual good friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) and, finally, Auggie’s mother. They’re all struggling with similar problems: loneliness, betrayal and disappointment.

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a cable movie, you’re right. The cynic in me would normally diss this film for its easy resolutions and warm and fuzzy sentiment.

But Auggie is not so easy to dismiss. Thanks to a great piece of acting by Tremblay and some skillful writing by director Chbosky and Steve Conrad, the little guy grows on you.

I think this is due in part to the film’s willingness to steer away from pity. Auggie doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s confident of his abilities. He knows his science and his Star Wars history and has a sharp sense of humor about himself and others in his planetary orbit. In short, he’s really, really normal and, best of all, likable.

What Auggie’s afraid of is being stared at, and isn’t that a normal fear in all of us? It’s what he does to connect with schoolmates that gives this film a real spark.

Of course, there’s a happy ending. For those who are criers, I recommend that you bring lots of tissue. Even so, what happens between beginning and end is worth watching because Wonder is really a film about people, all shapes and sizes, with painful memories but willing to fight for their existence and dreams.

Call that cheesy, but hell, isn’t this something we have all experienced? Auggie must learn to accept his normalcy and his differences with humor, humility and a wee bit of outsmarting his opponents. If we’re being truthful, I suppose that story could be told about all of us.