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WONDER: CYNICS NEED NOT APPLY

Wonder is a beautiful movie, and Stephen Chbosky was a perfect choice to direct and co-write it. The author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, who directed his own screen adaptation, isn’t afraid of honest emotion. What’s more, he is clearly in touch with his younger self. That alone would make him a candidate to translate R.J. Palacio’s best-selling young-adult novel to film. Wonder is a tearjerker that earns our tears by drawing us into its world and giving us a deep connection to its leading characters.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) has had 27 operations by the time we meet him, at the age of 10. He suffers from craniofacial syndrome, which causes everyone who sees him to stare—in horror, disbelief, or in some cases pity. He knows this all too well, so when his mother, who has tutored him at home, sends him off to middle school he is understandably terrified.

Like the book, the movie benefits from exploring several points of view, not just Auggie’s. By passing the first-person narration to his newfound schoolmate, his older sister Via (newcomer Izabela Vidovic), and her former best friend, we develop empathy for each one of them—as individuals and as they relate to Auggie.

Wonder is an invigorating, upbeat film, which comes as a genuine surprise. Auggie has a disarming sense of humor and so do his parents, played in heartfelt fashion by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. The comedic moments in the movie arise organically out of situations and relationships. I’m not sure how Chbosky pulled this off but I never felt manipulated, even as my eyes were welling up with tears.

But the real wonder is the movie’s youthful star, Jacob Tremblay, who made such a strong impression in Room when he was only six years old. He gives a completely natural, un-self-conscious performance that runs a wide gamut of emotions without ever hitting a false note. He is an old soul who happens to be a child and is, by any measure, a gifted actor.

Stephen Chbosky shares writing credit with Jack Thorne and Steven Conrad. As a guest in my USC class, he revealed that they—and two other uncredited scribes—added great ideas to the film, as did author Palacio, who was deeply involved in the production. She suggested casting Mandy Patinkin as the compassionate school principal and Sonia Braga, of all people, in a meaningful one-scene role as Via’s grandmother. Chbosky told my class that all the actors said yes because they responded so strongly to the material.

So did I. The slogan “choose kind” is not just a tagline; it’s a byword for our times and I wish more movies would preach that message. I’ll conclude by repeating what I said at the top of my review: Wonder is a beautiful movie.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight.

He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia.

He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?)

He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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