Genuine sentiment is hard to pull off in movies, especially now, in a time when irony rules the culture and the saccharine tends to be met with skepticism. But when Stephen Chbosky adapted his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower five years ago, he bucked the trend, telling a moving but often bleak story in a way that captured the wild peaks and valleys of teenhood with a rare observational eye. Now Chbosky will tackle another adaptation, and an even tricker kind to execute well: the uplift-through-adversity melodrama.
Wonder, based on R.J. Palacio’s best-selling novel, follows Oscar nominee Jacob Tremblay as Auggie, a fifth grader who’s dumped into the chaotic, sometimes cruel world of junior high when his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) decide to take him out of home schooling. Auggie was born with a cleft palate, and had “27 surgeries” that left him with conspicuous facial scarring, a reality that makes him an unfortunately easy target for bullying. But thanks to his burgeoning friendships and affectionate home, he hopes to learn to not only live with his differences, but embrace them.
The casual nature of bullying is something Chbosky explores at length throughout Wallflower, but Wonder offers a younger and more traditional version. While the film’s first trailer has some definite clunkers (“you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out,” there’s resonance in Roberts expressing every parent’s fear about letting their kids out into the world, especially kids who might not be ready for what meets them: “Dear God, please make them be nice to him.” It might be easy for Wonder to slip into sap, but we’re hopeful that the creative forces on hand will be able to manage something a little more touching and a little less cloying. At any rate, Wonder and its messages of optimism will arrive at the perfect time of year for that kind of thing, on November 17th.