One has to wonder (pun intended) why there are so many films with the word wonder in the title this year. Wonder Woman, Wonder Wheel, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck and of course, simply, Wonder. Perhaps in the current political and social climate—a divided country, hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, rampant accusations of sexual misconduct—we could all use a little bit of wonder. Whether it’s a female superhero who kicks ass and takes names or a little boy with a facial abnormality who learns not only how to survive but to thrive, teaching others the lesson of acceptance along the way.
In Wonder, opening this Friday Nov. 17, Jacob Tremblay is that boy. Tremblay impressed audiences and critics in the 2015 film Room and he does it again in this film based on the award winning YA book by RJ Palacio. This time, Tremblay plays Auggie Pullman, a boy born with a rare genetic disorder that causes his facial features to be out of place and his skin to appear scarred.
When we meet him, he’s jumping up and down on his bed wearing a toy astronaut helmet in a room painted with starry skies. “I know I’m not an ordinary kid,” he says in voice over. “I’ve had 27 surgeries ... to make me breathe, see, and hear better. But none of them made me look normal.”
At heart, he’s a typical kid who loves Star Wars and XBox, riding his bike, doing science experiments, and cracking jokes. He’s smart and funny. But his face has caused him to be cautious and shun social situations. He wears the helmet to prevent people from staring at him in shock or revulsion, and it’s become a security blanket. His favorite night of the year is Halloween because everyone wears a mask.
During one heartbreaking moment, Auggie asks his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) “Why do I have to be so ugly?” When she tells him he’s not ugly, he replies that her opinion doesn’t count because she’s his mom. She responds, “...Because I’m your mom it counts the most, because I know you.”
When Auggie is 10, he and his parents decide it’s time for him to go out into the world and leave behind the security of being homeschooled by his mom to attend “real” school for fifth grade. Entering a new school is hard enough, even for kids without Auggie’s condition, and Isabel and Auggie’s dad Nate (Owen Wilson) are not so sure he’ll be able to bear the teasing and taunting that are likely to occur. But they also know they can't keep him sheltered forever. So off to school he goes.
What ensues of course is a mixed bag of emotions, experiences, and lessons. There are those who befriend and defend him, some who bully and make fun of him, and others who simply don’t understand him.
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One kid asks if he eats special food, another if he knows what an eraser is, and Auggie (who can run circles around most of his peers academically) has to learn to navigate it all. At the end of is first day, he chops off his cool long braid, feeling like he can get rid of at least one of the things that make him “different.”
One of the refreshing things about the film, and a technique that prevents it from being just another “disease-of-the-week TV special” is that it’s not just told through the eyes of Auggie. It’s also conveyed through the thoughts and voices of those around him, such as his older sister Olivia, aka Via, who loves her brother but feels like there’s little family attention left for her. “August is the sun,” she says “and we’re planets orbiting around the sun.”
We also see Auggie’s world from the perspective of Via’s best friend Miranda. She and Via have grown apart, but they make amends. (Miranda is the one who gave Auggie the toy Astronaut helmet). Lastly, we see him through the eyes of his new friend Jack, (the adorable Noah Jupe), who truly likes Auggie but gets pressured into saying mean things about him by other kids, which Auggie heartbreakingly overhears. The hurtful incident ironically ends up causing them to become closer than ever.
At times the film can be a bit sappy (it’s hard not to sentimentalize with such a heart-wrenching topic), but it’s also sweet and uplifting—a life-affirming lesson about appearance, acceptance, family and friendship.
If you find yourself arguing with the family over Thanksgiving about what movie to go see, this is a good choice since it’s for all ages and hits all the right notes: funny, sad and also inspiring. Plus, can’t we all use a bit more wonder in our lives these days?