There’s a point when watching Wonder that you realise the actual breadth of the movie’s warmth and compassion. I entered ready to be all cynical about it, seems so trite, sick boy overcomes all the odds. But while that’s the hook, the movie grows out from it; giving all its characters time and understanding. It presents a world where everyone is struggling, and making mistakes but they’re all trying their best to cope, to move onward, to deal with everything that life throws at them.
Somehow, despite all that it don’t feel manipulative, or cloying, or crass. The sunny optimism at the film’s heart is incorruptible. I’m honestly not sure how they achieve that, there is not a single moment where it feels like it’s trying to be cool. In fact it’s a terminally uncool film, nothing about it announces its presence. Its craft and skill goes practically invisible until you realise suddenly that you care about these people and their low, low stakes drama.
That’s gotta be a part of it. The family at the centre of this tale own a New York Brownstone, one that they can apparently afford on a single income. The kids go to these fancy-ass prep schools and budgeting that is no problem either. If the film had the tenacity to suggest that these people’s lives were anything other than blessed something inside me would violently revolt. But these people seem wholly aware that their life is absolutely great and go most of the way to acknowledging their own privilege, the fact that it is such a minor work really supports that.
Then you got the actors, it’s like a super New York movie so you can bring in all these amazing Broadway folks to come in, shoot a few scenes in a couple days and wrap them. You got Daveed Diggs and Ali Liebert being teachers in a school being run by principle Mandy Patinkin. These roles that could be thrown away so easy are just crammed with people able to radiate warmth and acceptance merely from the way they sit in a chair. It’s the same with the kids too, they might not have chosen the most technically gifted young actors, but they got the ones whose eyes seem truthful.
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson make the best onscreen parents. Roberts just hasn’t been working much over the past few years so anything we get of her is a delight, but Wilson seems to have been consciously avoiding dad roles. I mean, he gotta film coming out where the whole plot is him looking for a dad in a sorta reverse Broken Flowers type deal. I don’t wanna see that, he makes the best dad here, with his lilting whispery dad voice and that permanent harried expression. His motions have this tired weight to them that makes his dadness troubling but inevitable feeling and he just leans right into it. The film’s not his, he doesn’t really get any moments but his presence is extraordinary.
Not to short sell Roberts here though, her part as a devoted mother having to push her children towards their own lives is brought to life with this supreme delicacy. Watch as she plays the internal and external conflict of her situation, she is doing so much so well. And Jacob Tremblay, acting under an hour and a half’s worth of prosthetics. I think I might have written him off in the past as a cute face and outstanding alive, but he gets it. His embrace of this character, the way he builds and dismantles the dude is as comprehensive as any adult character.
Also it would be rude not to mention the teen actors Izabela Vidovic, Nadji Jeter and Danielle Rose Russell whose loose and easy charm buoy a subplot that starts to stray a little towards the trite. They get it, everyone in this movie seems to, the shape and spectre of it. Don Burgess pours light and warmth into every scene, Marcelo Zarvos’ music is gentle and unobstructive. They want you to see these people, to be comforted and embraced by our shared recognition of humanity.
Sure that means it can be easy, that everything can be resolved, that there’s no fury or bite to it. But I didn’t feel like I needed it. It’s a film where the rich aren’t massive self-obsessed dickbags. It’s about the joy of sharing ourselves and our experiences with the world. Here it is in the form of an exploration of ableism but the clarity and unpretentiousness of its message of love, kindness, acceptance and community is essential always, especially given how often many of us forget it.
Wonder is currently screening in UK cinemas.