Wonder is every inch a Nice Movie. It offers very simple, bromidic observations about having a good heart and being yourself and what have you. It centers on a disfigured little boy that the makeup designers have carefully contrived to look more adorable than actually off-putting in any way. It carefully vanishes away all of its conflicts without forcing any of them to come to a head. It is, 95% of the time, precisely the movie you expect it will be-

-but that 5% is awfully important, and even the 95% is generally very well executed. I will say that any film which can hand Julia Roberts a powerfully straightforward "supportive mom with no apparent limits on her patience" role, and end up with Roberts giving one of the year's most interesting and subtle supporting performances, is a film that has gotten on the right track. And for all that it is a generic affair, it manages to establish its own personality in the place where it matters the utmost: it somehow manages to avoid any overabundance of treacly sentimentality until the last few scenes, and indeed sometimes actively undercuts sentiment by allowing its characters a certain bluntness.

The logline version of the movie is that 10-year-old August "Auggie" Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), whose face is a mask of scar tissue and reconstructed features attempting to correct a genetic condition, is going to public school for the first time, having been home schooled through fourth grade by his mother Isabel (Roberts). There he learns that his fears about nasty-minded bullies are somewhat true, but he also learns that there can be decent and good people out there in the world, and that friendship with kids his own age substantially beats being safe and alone. The actual movie is a little thicker than that: for one thing, Auggie is our chief protagonist, but not our only protagonist; the film gives POV moments to multiple characters, to spend a few minutes exploring how they feel about having Auggie in their life. Mostly, these are just little grace notes, designed to go over the bits of the plot that are invisible the first time around, but Auggie's sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) gets her own reasonably well-developed storyline, involving the shock and horror she feels at learning that her all-time best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has abandoned her for no apparent reason after spending summer as a camp counselor). Not to mention, her quiet, easily-repressed anger that her parents (Owen Wilson plays Nate, the affable dad) have allowed the family's entire existence to revolve around Auggie's needs and whims, while she simply has to get by as best she can on the sidelines.

It's Via's storyline that points to how Wonder is trickier than the simplest "goodness and light, and be kind to people who are different" reading of the material. It's frank about the reality of families with medical problems: time doesn't actually stop, no matter how convenient that would be, and all the love and patience in the world can't erase the fact that it can be a real irritating grind to have to accommodate someone else's problems for the rest of your life. It's still an optimistic movie for kids, and all, it's not like soaked in bitterness about the dynamics of family life; but it has more clarity and honesty on those dynamics than I would have presumed possible from the plot hook.

This is the basic reality of the screenplay adapted by director Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad, and Jack Thorne, from the novel by R.J. Palacio. It does not over-dramatise, either the good things or the bad things; it doesn't even include much in the way of a plot structure or a discernible film-length conflict, neither of which are necessarily strengths (it leads to a rather formless movie that never, ever feels like it's more than a snapshot album, just disconnected vignettes in search of a spine). It just presents the kinds of situations that a boy in Auggie's position might face, and watches him deal with them.

Let's not overstate the case: this is a well-funded crowd-pleaser designed to maximise uplift and stay as far from ambiguity as one can remain. It has shadings, not shadows. But given its commercial aims, it's substantially better-made than it needs to be; Chbosky lets scenes find their own speed and helps his large cast of child actors to underplay and relax; while the film struggles with finding dialogue that sounds like 10-year-olds would actually say it (and this struggle ends in abject defeat when it comes to the voiceover narration, which altogether defeats Tremplay, however natural and comfortable he is elsewhere in the movie), the rhythms of scenes are sufficiently low-key that it rarely feels like it's causing anybody any problems.

Wonder also has an amazing secret weapon in the form of Julia Roberts, who is fucking superb in a role that wouldn't apparently even allow room for such a thing. Like all great supporting actors in history, Roberts has figured out that her character needs to have a fully articulated history - to be the protagonist in her own movie, which happens to not be the one we're watching - while never redirecting focus from the main character. She does this by buying herself with tiny moments in all of the scenes where other people are the focus, or tinier scenes that she gets all to herself. Her subplot is that she's going to finally finish up her master's thesis, now that Auggie is out of the house, and for all that "stunted academic sits with petulant boredom at a computer screen" is a cliché that needs to die, Roberts invest these moments with a kind of potential energy, in the way she leans over the the computer, in the hopeful, hungry twist of her eyes. An even better moment - one of my favorite pieces of screen acting in 2017, frankly - happens when Isabel discovers that Auggie has made his first friend, a kid named Jack Will (Noah Jupe); Roberts plays this scene first with a look of mouth-hanging-open shock that verges on horror, letting us see for just a flash the dismay of a mother who has just learned that she's no longer the solitary focal point of her son's life; then quickly swallowing that into a firm determination to put up a good show for him, to let him know that she's proud; and then this softens into a distant expression, a recognition that this is, after all, the whole thing she wanted. And Roberts does all of this with nothing but her face, and the way she keeps her arms stiffly by her body.

So all told, very far indeed from the disposable feel-goodery that seemed to be this project's fate. It's still a pretty basic, straightforward piece of filmmaking: I would not swear to there having been a single interesting shot anywhere in the movie's 113 minutes. Nor does the plot offer up any surprises, only unexpected emphases, and even these start to fade away in the end (the film's last act is its most predictable, cloying, and dull). It's an engaging film, though in no way, shape, or form essential, outside of Roberts's perfect little gemstone of a performance; still, "essential" isn't the only reason to watch a film, and something this good at being easy and upbeat is, at the very least, not to be wantonly discarded.