Choose kindess: it is that simple

Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder," despite its Hallmark Card appearance, is far from the "Clockwork Orange"–like exercise in emotional manipulation some might fear.
Choose kindess: it is that simple

Owen Wilson (left), Julia Roberts (right), Jacob Tremblay (middle) and Izabela Vidovic in a sceme from “Wonder.”

It’s hard for us cynical souls to walk into a movie advertised with the tagline “Choose kindness” and not shudder in trepidation. What sentimental hooey is this? What new hellish circle of cheese awaits now?

And yet Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” despite its Hallmark Card appearance, is far from the “Clockwork Orange”—like exercise in emotional manipulation some might fear. Even the most pessimistic of us may actually find it charming and genuinely affecting.

Based on R.J. Palacio’s 2012 YA novel, “Wonder” is about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), with mandibulofacial dysostosis or Treacher Collins Syndrome. His parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him up until now but believe it’s time for him to enter fifth grade and middle school — a lion’s den if ever there was one, especially for a gentle, socially isolated boy with facial deformities despite 27 surgeries.

They, along with his older sister Via (an excellent Izabela Vidovic), live in brownstone Brooklyn, the epicenter of inspirational tales about precocious pre-teens. Auggie is comfortable around the neighborhood in his astronaut helmet but the prospect of school petrifies him. His first experiences aren’t reassuring, either. A legitimate science whiz and self-declared “Star Wars” fan, he’s nicknamed “Barf Hideous.” Later, rumors spread that just touching him will spread the plague.

The movies, a superficial medium by nature, often put irregular appearances under a harsh microscope. Seldom do we see stories like Auggie’s given a close-up. But when they have, the results have often been moving and memorable — like David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask.”

Choose kindess: it is that simple

Julia Roberts (right) talking to Jacob Tremblay in a sceme from “Wonder”

“Wonder” adds to that lineage but it’s not entirely focused on Auggie. As the film progresses, it abruptly shifts perspectives, reconsidering the point of view of various characters in Auggie’s orbit.

After we first experience Auggie’s joys and hardships at school, we see things from the other side. After Auggie’s first friend (Noah Jupe) betrays him when he thinks Auggie is out of earshot, we get his story. And we get the backstory of the school bully (Bryce Gheisar), too, revealing parents from whom he learned his behavior.

The result is a clear and straightforward message movie. It tenderly evokes both the crushing pain of being shunned and the saving grace of a much-needed friend — for Auggie and for everyone. It’s a sincere and valuable lesson in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

There are plenty of movies in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but “Wonder” sticks close to the daily problems of childhood, working through them with sensitivity.

It’s not as easy as saying “choose kindness,” but it is that simple.

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