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Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson make this a ‘Wonder’ to behold

November 16, 2017 GMT

Movies that are largely about illness can be harrowing experiences. Wonder moves the genre to a better region. Based on R.J. Palacios 2012 childrens novel, it uses the drama for a study of the grueling, resourceful work good people can do to help a single challenged life. But its never a mawkish ordeal. Viewing it is a surprisingly enjoyable experience rather than a serving of inspirational broccoli.

A large part of its focus is Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a bright, alert boy who digs Star Wars and X-Box gaming. Like a lot of 10-year-olds, hes is anxious about entering fifth grade, which hell do at the middle school in a private childrens academy. He was born with deformity of his eyes, ears and facial tissues, a condition he has kept hidden when hes in public by wearing a toy astronauts helmet.

Hes been home-schooled up to this point by his protective mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). Shes as anxious as he is while his father, Nate (Owen Wilson), and teenage sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), prepare him for his stressful but important transition to shared classrooms.

Director Stephen Chbosky has experience making this sort of film. His directorial breakthrough was an adaptation of his own novel, 2012s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This film at times has the visual blandness of a tele-movie, but Chbosky handles his cast impeccably.

Tremblay, an excellent young talent in Room and The Book of Henry, appears in disfiguring prosthetic makeup that never diminishes his sensitive and delicate character work. When a bullying boy at school likens Auggie to Gollum, its a senselessly cruel comment. But on another level, its an accurate compliment combining the look of youth with old age, Tremblay is a remarkable performer.

While Auggies looks take considerable getting used to from his classmates (especially Bryce Cheisars extra-villainous Julian), he could hardly have a better staff. As the schools principal, Mandy Patinkin offers a master class in treating difficult children like respected adults and their parents vice versa. His homeroom teacher (Daveed Diggs, irresistibly charming in the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is the sort of flawless mentor that can make kids think of education as a dream career.

Auggies difficulties are partly pushed at him by immature classmates and partly self-inflicted. The film takes the time to consider its inhabitants in depth, explaining that kids who mock empathy and inclusiveness didnt develop those personalities on their own.

The story moves across four episodes, each framed like a chapter that carries the name and perspective of a different character. Everyone sees the story with a point of view that enriches what has come before, following parallel developments that range from first romance to gradually developing an ethical sense of the world. The players arent equally balanced.

Two of them drop from their intervals surprisingly fast, but thats a quibble. Most of Wonders novel turns, like the plot twist that arrives as two characters across town connect through their computers in a game of Minecraft, are finely crafted.

The biggest surprises may be the deft work by the marquee stars. Roberts is highly moving as the combative mother, a saintly shrew. You cant take your eyes off her.

Wilson needs to be seen here, too. He has done lots of work thats all baloney and bombast, but not here, not for a moment. He pushes beyond every shred of dishonest actorish self-consciousness to create a truly uplifting performance. Without unwarranted heartstring-yanking, hes saddened to tears and tickled to laughs. You probably will be, too. I was.

Colin Covert 612-673-7186 @colincovert