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. But after years of being home-schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts), he's joining 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 the first time.
"Wonder" could be a maudlin slog, filled with platitudes about treating others the way you want to be treated. But 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: "Wonder" is complex, funny and - of course - a cry-fest that looks at the real burdens of being a kid.
But it isn't just the Auggie show. Among the perspectives, his sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), provides her equally shattering story of living in a house where she was mostly overlooked by parents 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.
Despite the difficult themes, Chbosky maintains a light touch.
"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.