Want to see an inspiring movie? One with a powerful implicit pro-life message? How about a movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson? Then grab the kids of almost any age and take them to see Wonder, if you’re lucky enough that it’s playing in your town.
Wonder might make you cry, but it isn’t weepy. It deals with bitterly painful subjects: bullying, birth defects and the cruelty of children. Its hero is a young boy with a gruesome facial deformity. The movie doesn’t sugar coat the suffering little August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) endures. Nor does it wallow in it, like some saccharine “After School Special.” Instead, it carves out his story and that of his family in three dimensions. The result is a real work of art. It will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Yes, there is plenty of pain. But there is also courage. And love, abundant love. I won’t give away the ending, but … what tends to conquer all?
Young Augie was born with a life-threatening birth defect that required repeated surgeries to join up the unlinked pieces of his poor little visage. The outcome … isn’t pretty. Not even for adults in a movie theater, much less for other kids his age. To spare him their reactions, his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts) has put her career on a shelf to home school him up through fifth grade. (Unsurprisingly, this means that he’s way ahead of his designated grade level. Home schooling works.) But now it is time for middle school. The family decides that it’s time for him to face the world. And to let the world face him.
Facing the World
August enrolls at a high-end private prep school in tony Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Pullmans are clearly quite affluent, though the father (Owen Wilson) seems to have abundant family time. His affection and support have built up Augie’s courage. He will need it.
A few sneering bullies, however, come out and taunt Augie. They call him a monster. And for a long time, they get away with it.
The kids at the school are mostly … kids. When they see a peer with a face that looks to some of them like a creature from Star Wars, most look away, politely. That’s painful enough. A few sneering bullies, however, come out and taunt Augie. They call him a monster. And for a long time, they get away with it. Augie’s biggest pain comes from apparent betrayal by a young boy, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who’d befriended him at first. It soon isn’t clear whether Augie can stand to stay at the school. Or will he insist on returning to the safety of his family home — and the astronaut helmet which the space-obsessed boy used to wear to hide his appearance?
A Jewel with Many Facets
If the story stayed focused on Augie alone, it might be a standard tearjerker, and of only limited interest. Instead, the film takes a more sophisticated approach. It switches to tell the story of Augie’s older sister, Olivia (Izabela Vidovic). And that makes a welcome surprise. It makes us think: What would it be like to have your younger brother a kind of martyr-figure? How would a teenage girl feel when her parents’ attention was almost wholly consumed by her sibling? However much she loved him, there’d have to be some resentment…. And Olivia has her own problems, faces her own betrayal, at the hands of her one-time best friend, Miranda.
Then the film digs even deeper, by going wider. It tells the story from Jack Will’s point of view — the boy who’d befriended Augie, then apparently turned on him. We see what it’s like to be the poor, scholarship boy in a ritzy private school. The boy who can’t keep up with his peers’ elite lifestyles.
In another welcome turn, Wonder then shows us the world through Miranda’s eyes (Danielle Rose Russell). We see the family pain that distorts her natural goodness and the regret she learns to feel.
How God Must Feel
Wonder’s narrative switches gradually build up to a powerful effect: We learn to love and forgive these imperfect, struggling people. We want to see them do better, and cringe when they go astray.
Isn’t that how God likely views each of us sinners? It’s more than refreshing, it’s healing to watch a movie that hints at this.
2018 Update: This article was first published by The Stream, and Wonder is still showing in movie theaters. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Wonder for Best Makeup.