Film & Television

Wonder : From Teachable Moment to Marvelous Movie

“When given a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

That’s the first precept that fifth grade teacher Mr. Browne writes on the blackboard. It’s an important lesson — and will prove particularly challenging to some of his students — because among their classmates is an unusual boy. Auggie Pullman is a precocious little nerd with severe craniofacial deformities. His older sister may have encouraged him, “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out,” but in the dog-eat-dog world of middle school, poor Auggie was born to be bullied.

The new movie Wonder, based on the bestselling children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, is risky business. It could easily fall down into schmaltzy melodrama territory and be unable to get back up. But, under the intelligent, understated direction of Stephen Chobsky, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Conrad, Wonder tugs gently at your heartstrings. You feel for Auggie, but you don’t necessarily feel sorry for him. And, that makes all the difference.

Home-schooled (in between 27 separate surgeries), ten-year-old Auggie is attending real school for the first time. “I’m pretty much totally petrified,” he confides, jumping on his bed in the space helmet that’s become both a mask and the key to elaborate fantasies. (Watch for guest appearances by Chewbacca and other Star Wars figures.) He’s had tremendous support at home; his mother put her life on hold to teach and care for him; his father is loving in a natural, matter-of-fact way; his sister is kinder than most siblings might be under the circumstances. When he arrives at Beecher Prep School, the principal and his homeroom teacher (the aforementioned Mr. Browne) are progressive and wholly compassionate. The problem, as Auggie predicts, will be with his peers.

“Dear God,” his mother whispers as she and his dad watch him head into the school, “Make them be nice to him.” Of course, they’re not. At least, not right away.

Auggie’s appearance makes his situation extreme. And, true to this type of story, he has arch nemeses (in particular, a rich kid named Julian) and eventual pals (first a scholarship kid named Jack Will, then Summer, a girl who wants “some nice friends for a change”). What becomes more of a revelation in Wonder is how Chobsky elegantly weaves in other stories. Auggie isn’t the only one who’s afraid; others feel bullied too. At various points, the narrative shifts so that we understand the perspective of his sister Via (she feels invisible), his first friend Jack Will (he has to join in mocking Auggie or become a target himself), Via’s ex-best friend Miranda (who is struggling as her parents split up), and even Julian. Julian’s parents, when they’re brought in to account for his bullying, are undeniably the film’s most reprehensible characters. The message is clear. Kids don’t want to be mean; they want to be kind. But they need better examples, and they need permission.

What a marvelous message for these times.

This surprisingly humanist and non-judgmental approach to familiar material at once simplifies and elevates the story. Palacio’s book is in particularly good hands. Chobsky addressed the struggles of teens with similar nuance when he directed the adaptation of his own young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012. And Conrad penned the screenplay for 2006’s tearjerker The Pursuit of Happyness. Wonder also benefits from a stellar cast.

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