Middle school can be agonizing for any kid, but, as "Wonder" begins, we suspect it's going to be especially hard for 10-year-old Auggie Pullman.
After 27 surgeries to help him see, breathe and hear, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) doesn't look like other children. He's small and scarred, with a high-pitched, scratchy voice and a braided rattail, and he usually wears an astronaut helmet when he leaves the house. But after years of being home-schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts), he's preparing to join his peers at New York's Beecher Prep.
"Dear God, please make them be nice to him," Auggie's mom says to his dad (Owen Wilson) as they watch him walk into school for the first time.
In the wrong hands, "Wonder" could be a maudlin slog, filled with platitudes about treating others the way you want to be treated. But noted child-whisperer Stephen Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") directed the drama, mostly avoiding treacle with a script he co-adapted from R. J. Palacio's beloved best-selling children's novel.
The result is not all anguish and bullying. "Wonder" is complex, funny and - of course - a real cry-fest that looks at the very real burdens of being a kid.
Like the novel, the movie isn't just the Auggie show. It's told from different perspectives. His sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) provides her equally shattering story of living in a house where she was mostly overlooked by a mother and father busy taking care of a sick child. "August is the sun," she says of her brother in voice-over - everyone revolves around him. Her story is all the more touching because of her love for him; she isn't bitter so much as desperately lonely.
Auggie's friend Jack (Noah Jupe) gets his own story, too, showing a sweet boy who nevertheless hesitated to get close to the new kid who looked different. Via's estranged best friend (Danielle Rose Russell), meanwhile, comes off as a bit of a villain until we see the world through her troubled eyes. The message can be a little heavy-handed but no less worthy: You never know what someone else is going through.
Even though Auggie and Via's parents don't get their own dedicated narratives, their agony and fear is in the background. Auggie's mother makes a particularly interesting character as a woman who gave up her dreams of a PhD to care for her son and now feels both thrilled and guilty about getting her own life back.
Meanwhile, although Auggie aces every pop quiz, he struggles socially at school, where one toxic Eddie Haskell-type (Bryce Gheisar) mercilessly teases him whenever adults are out of earshot. Predictably, after a few snags, Auggie makes some meaningful connections.
Despite the difficult themes, Chbosky maintains a light touch. There are surreal moments, including the recurring image of Chewbacca as one of Auggie's equally eye-catching classmates. When Jack asks Auggie whether he's ever contemplated plastic surgery, Auggie responds, "Dude, this is after plastic surgery. It takes a lot of work to look this good."
"Wonder" does occasionally suffer from kid-movie pitfalls, straining to be cute or mining humor from ridiculously precocious little ones. But mostly it succeeds in telling not one complicated story, but many, and giving the experience of being a confused or lonely or scared youngster the space it deserves.