Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), the central character in Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” is a brainy 10-year-old boy with a sweet high voice and a congenital facial deformity, whom numerous corrective surgeries have left looking like a cherub after a car accident. His left eye tugs downward as if a teardrop were falling from it; his ears are bulbs of flesh, and his face is framed by a pinkish ring of scar tissue. That said, he’s not the Phantom of the Opera. He’s just an ordinary kid whose looks take a bit of getting used to.
Auggie is a science geek who loves “Star Wars” and Minecraft, ice cream and X-Box sports games; he’s fueled by all-American fantasies of going to outer space. (He likes to walk around in a toy astronaut helmet that conceals him and feeds his dreams.) His face, which looks youthful and old at the same time, is jarring the first time you see it, but the more you take in his innocent if slightly askew elfin features, the more his soul shines through. Any thoughts that he’s ugly, or odd, are really in the eye of the beholder.
Movies about people with dramatic disfigurements run a high risk of being mawkish and manipulative. Yet maybe because the dangers of grotesque sentimentality loom so large, a handful of filmmakers, over the years, have made a point of taking on stories like this one and treading carefully around the pitfalls. David Lynch did it in “The Elephant Man” (1980), his shrewdly restrained, underbelly-of-London Gothic horror weeper, which revealed John Merrick, beneath his warped and bubbled flesh, to be a figure of entrancing delicacy. Peter Bogdanovich did it in “Mask” (1985), his straight-up tale of a teenager with a face of scowling strangeness who came to embrace the person he was.
“Wonder” is a movie that belongs in their company. It’s a very tasteful heart-tugger — a drama of disarmingly level-headed empathy that glides along with wit, assurance, and grace, and has something touching and resonant to say about the current climate of American bullying. At the same time, the film never upsets the apple cart of conventionality. “Wonder” is an honest feel-good movie, but it lacks the pricklier edges of art.
Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), in their cozy Brooklyn brownstone. But now that he’s 10, she and Auggie’s dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), have made the decision to send him to middle school. They know they can’t shield him from the world forever, and they have no desire to.
Roberts and Wilson make a compelling team; they play the Pullmans as supremely sensitive, loving parents who have the occasional tug-of-war spat about what’s best for their special son. Yet both want him to stand up for himself, and to be part of a community. Auggie wants that, too, though the kids he meets at Beecher Prep School don’t make it easy. By the end of his first day there, he has already been nicknamed (after one of his favorite “Star Wars” characters) “Barf Hideous,” and he chops off the rat-tail braid that’s his only fashion statement — a testament to the destructive power of peer pressure. Just enough of the kids treat Auggie like a freak to make the belief that he is one tough for him to shake.
This is the third feature directed by Chbosky, the novelist who actually got his start as a filmmaker (with the 1995 indie “The Four Corners of Nowhere”), and it was his second, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), that established him as a major directorial voice. Adapted from his own first novel, “Perks” was the most remarkable coming-of-age movie in years, a drama that took in, with astonishing authenticity, the pleasures and perils of teenage life. (It also used David Bowie’s “Heroes” in a way that’s so transporting it trumps every musical sequence in “Baby Driver.”) “Wonder” is a movie by the same sharp-eyed, open-hearted, close-to-the-ground filmmaker. Chbosky, working in the tradition of Jonathan Demme, doesn’t hype what he shows you, and he cuts to the humanity of everyone on screen, even those who act badly. (He has a touching refusal to demonize.)
“Wonder,” adapted from R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel (which took its title from the 1995 Natalie Merchant song about overcoming disfigurement), is a less audacious film than “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” But Chbosky’s intense understanding of the layered personalities of kids is a rare gift. He lets the movie breathe by refusing to restrict the drama to Auggie’s point of view. It’s built around his gentle sadness and yearning, but it opens up into chapters told from the vantage of Jack (Noah Jupe), his science-class partner, who looks like he might be turning into Auggie’s buddy, only to leave him with a sense that he can’t trust anyone; and Auggie’s high-school sister, Via (Izabela Vidoovic), who’s the most complicated character in the movie. She has grown up in a family so organized around Auggie that her own needs can never come first. She wouldn’t think to question that, but the dynamic has graced her with both compassion and a hidden wound, and Vidovic’s pensive presence lends her scenes a rapt center of gravity.
Chbosky has a sixth sense for how to let a drama flow from anecdote to anecdote. Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, leads to the moment when he overhears Jack, goaded by the smug, fashionable Julian (Bryce Gheisar), snarking to the other kids about him — a devastating betrayal, but one that turns out to be crucial to cementing their friendship. Jack can’t get past his prejudice until he has outed it. “Wonder” is a movie that’s finely attuned to what bullying is actually about: kids walling off their feelings, giving into the dark side of themselves to be superior. Bullies, of course, weren’t born bad, but in “Wonder” the idea is no pious abstraction — it plays out in every encounter between Auggie and those who would treat him meanly. The scenes are really about how his presence is a threat to their too-cool-for-schoolness.
“Wonder,” as effective as it is, is a movie in which everything has a way of working out with tidy benevolence. Via goes from being shunned by her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell), who has joined a hipper clique, to falling for a charismatic kid (Nadji Jeter) from the drama club to trying out for a student production of “Our Town” to winning her friend back to becoming the understudy who knocks ’em dead on opening night. Auggie, over the course of fifth grade, goes from being the school goat to a school hero. Yet Jacob Tremblay, acting from behind his transformative make-up, roots that journey in something real: the fact that who you are, whether you look like Auggie Pullman or someone more “normal,” can be a prison or a liberation, depending on the path you choose. Of all the films this year with “wonder” in the title (“Wonderstruck,” “Wonder Woman,” “Wonder Wheel,” “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”), this is the one that comes closest to living up to the emotional alchemy of that word.