Is There a Better Family Film This Year?
DIRECTED BY STEPHEN CHBOSKY/2017
Based on the best-selling book by R. J. Palacio, Wonder tells the story of a 5th grade boy who is said to have Mandibulofacial dysostosis, which is often assumed to be Treacher Collins syndrome (though not explicitly said in the book), a condition in which deformities of the eyes, ears, cheekbones and chin are typical. This requires numerous reconstructive surgeries, and often includes a cleft palate. It can affect breathing, vision, and hearing.
Because of this, August Pullman, or “Auggie” (Jacob Tremblay-Room), has been homeschooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts-Money Monster) and Nate (Owen Wilson-Cars 3) who long to protect him from the type of rejection they fear he would be submitted to in school by his classmates. As 5th grade begins, they are faced with needing to send him to middle school, and “Auggie” must face his fears and see if he can navigate the cruel world that awaits him.
Stephen Chbosky directed the film The Perks of Being a Wallflower and was able to effectively capture the equally cruel world of high school. With Wonder, he ably navigates the smaller, but maybe more raw and savage, hallways of middle school where 5th-8th graders have a lot less filter on what they say, or the depths of humiliation they are able to come up with to put anyone different from them in their cross-hairs.
For Auggie, everything starts off well enough. At a pre-school visit, he meets the Principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin-The Princess Bride), whose unfortunate name is embraced by the bearded school administrator as a badge of honor serving as perhaps a roadmap for Auggie, whose facial deformities have kept him hidden often behind his astronaut helmet, but that must soon emerge to walk the halls of this new school. At this pre-visit, Mr. Tushman has arranged for three students to give Auggie a tour of the school. They are Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), Julian (Bryce Gheiser), and Jack Will (Noah Jupe). Charlotte is a girl who loves to talk about herself and her numerous acting gigs at the young age of 10 years old. Julian, as Auggie learns, presents himself as an all-around good guy when adults are present, but can be quite different when they aren’t around. Jack Will is a bit more difficult to figure out for Auggie as Jack doesn’t quite seem to be comfortable around Julian, but doesn’t say much either.
While Wonder certainly is about Auggie, it is also about Auggie’s sister Olivia, or Via (Izabela Vidovic-Homefront), a high school senior who comments that Auggie is the sun of her parent’s world, and she has learned how to live in her orbit around it. While it is a seemingly innocent line, there is much baggage in her statement. A quiet girl who has never given her parents anything to worry about, Via is often the forgotten child who must navigate New York’s metro system to get to school on her own, who never has to be told to study or do well. With her parents having to focus on Auggie and his 27 reconstructive surgeries over the years, Via has learned to live her life out of their focus or gaze, instead finding love and acceptance through her grandmother. After losing her best friend, her grandmother, and seeing her life-long friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell-Aloha) come back from camp a different person with a new social circle, Via has never felt more alone.
The film tells the story from the perspective of Auggie, Via, Jack Will, and Miranda, to varying degrees so that we can better empathize with what transpires over the course of the story. This is effective in that it doesn’t allow us to see two-dimensional caricatures of “hero” and “villain”. Instead, we are shown that each character is fully human. Sometimes we choose to do the right thing, sometimes we cave to social pressure, or we react out of our own hurt and experiences. We are all, like Auggie, trying to navigate the crowded social hallways of our lives, no matter how old we are, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we grow-up, it just changes what it looks like to certain degrees.
Much has been made of the fact that the actor playing Auggie, Jacob Trembley, is not a person with Treacher Collins syndrome, and is instead wearing a facial prosthetic for his portrayal. This criticism is a part of the much needed push to hire actors who are members of the marginalized people groups being depicted in stories on film to actually play the characters being depicted. This has been done beautifully on ABC’s hit comedy Speechless, and the recent animation film Moana, and needs to be done whenever possible so that we create more and more opportunities for under-represented groups of society to be a part of our collective shared experiences.
Patty Jenkins direction of Wonder Woman earlier this year set records for a female-helmed film, starring Gal Gadot as a female superhero. To see the step-backwards, look at the Zack Snyder/Joss Whedon directed treatment of the same character in this weekend’s Justice League and you will see the contrast of a female voice directing a female-centered story vs. the male-centered leering camera gaze treatment of Gal Gadot in Justice League reducing the empowerment message in Wonder Woman to that of just a sexualized inclusion of “super hot” Wonder Woman into a basically all guys-club. Fortunately Gal Gadot can more than hold her own, and end up still being the main reason to even see Justice League, but it is an example of why we need more representation of actors that are like the marginalized characters they are portraying.
That being said, I do not think that we must hold every film up to that litmus test alone. Jacob Tremblay does a superb job in his role, and brings empathy and heart to a role that will accomplish what the book, and the film, seek to do, which is create room in our hearts to re-evaluate how we treat people with differences. This isn’t like white-washing controversies where a white lead actor is hired to play what is traditionally an Asian-based character as in Dr. Strange when there are more than plenty of wonderful Asian actors who could be cast in that role. So I personally think that here we see an example of casting finding an actor that could portray the character authentically, without lessening the integrity of the story or the narrative, and this will have a great impact on the community of people who identify with Auggie’s struggle.
This is also one of the best family films I have seen in a long time. It is beautifully, and humorously portrayed by an incredibly strong cast, where kids are allowed to take the lead and measure up in every way to their better known adult leads. The film is mostly a clean affair in terms of language and sexual scenes (a group of 5-8th grade students from a local school that was at the screening did hilariously respond audibly to a kissing scene with Via), and yet presents a realistic portrayal of bullying and the effects it has on the victim and perpetrator, especially when the bully is just a child himself/herself.
Having not read the book on which the film is based, I went in to this screening with no preconceived notions. This book is beloved, and has risen to much prominence in educational circles (of which I am a member as a high school teacher) for its strong anti-bullying message, and themes of acceptance. Central to this are the “Precepts” put on the board by Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs-Black-ish). One that has shown up in elementary and junior high schools everywhere is the statement Mr. Browne posts on his board, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This is central to the world of Wonder as we see Auggie’s journey play out as he steps foot into school for the first time, scared to death of the looks he gets, and the horrible feeling he has knowing that he too often looks down to avoid seeing that look in other people’s faces as they don’t know what to say or do when they see his face.
This “Choose Kind” mantra is also the prayer of Isabel and Nate as they hope that Auggie will find a way to discover some true friends who will allow their son to have a chance at friendship, laughter with peers, and others getting a chance to see how bright Auggie is. It is also the challenge to the audience as they leave the theater, to embrace any superficial differences we may see on others around us, and instead try to get to the core of what makes each of us special.