Wonder movie review: learning to be nice to a paragon

Wonder yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Reminders to be kind are all very well, but it’s time to move past the idea that it’s up to people who are different to inspire everyone else to be better people.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” This is one of the monthly “precepts” Auggie Pullman’s fifth-grade homeroom teacher shares with his students. It’s a nice rule, and yay for the vocabulary lesson of precept. And just to be sure that no one has missed the fact that Wonder has not very subtly underlined this moral over and over again, Auggie will repeat it out loud for the audience at the film’s end.

I wish I felt worse about reacting churlishly to a movie that is all about reminding kids to be nice to people, and about insisting that bullying is bad. But Wonder is both hamhanded, bashing us about the noggin with its Themes and its Messages till you want to scream “All right already, we get it!”, and also so gentle and so subdued as to be almost dramatically inert. It’s a weird middle ground for a movie to exist in, almost as if it simply doesn’t trust itself to tell its own story and be understood. Or else the movie, based on the bestselling children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, takes too much to heart the notion that kids need to be told the same thing a hundred times before it sinks it. I’m not sure that applies to drama the same way it might to, I dunno, multiplication tables. Wonder might have trusted more that stories are their own lessons, and don’t require flashcard accompaniment.

The first day at a new school: as dangerous as a mission to outer space.
The first day at a new school: as dangerous as a mission to outer space.

The appeals to be nice and not bully are needed because 10-year-old Auggie is going to school — a real school — for the first time as Wonder opens. He has been homeschooled by his mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts: Smurfs: The Lost Village, Secret in Their Eyes), because he suffers from facial deformities that have required numerous surgeries, including plastic surgery, to fix. It’s not clear, however, whether it’s the constant hospital stays that have kept him out of school or whether his mom and dad, Nate (Owen Wilson: Cars 3, Zoolander 2), have just been overprotective of him; his face is certainly unusual, but far from horrific; he’s pretty cute, in fact. But of course kids have a remarkable ability to hone in like a laser on even the smallest difference in other kids, and Auggie — whose differences are far from small — remains an outcast and a target for quite a while in his new school.

Wonder is so gentle as to be almost dramatically inert, but also hamhanded, as if it simply doesn’t trust us to understand its story.

Wonder seems as if it’s going to be purely Auggie’s story, but it takes sudden and almost jarring detours into the stories of others around him, including his older sister, Olivia, or “Via” (Izabela Vidovic: Homefront), his new friend Jack (Noah Jupe), and even Via’s best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell: Aloha, A Walk Among the Tombstones). These tangents — even when they are dropped just as suddenly as they get taken up — are meant to show us those hard battles that everyone else is fighting; Via, for instance, has always felt neglected by her parents because of all the attention that her little brother’s medical needs required. That becomes problematic from a thematic standpoint, beyond the narrative issues, however, when Wonder posits that someone like Auggie, someone who is disabled or different, can serve as an inspiration for others to become better people… like in learning not to be a bully! It’s more than a little offensive to suggest that that’s where Auggie’s value as a person lies, why he should be celebrated, or why he is the “wonder” his mother calls him. Auggie is actually a lot wiser than the movie itself: “I try to pretend that it doesn’t matter that I look different,” he laments to his mother, “but it does.” He’s right, and he will cetainly continue to face more challenges as he gets older. Wonder acts like all his troubles are over once he wins over the mean fifth-graders.

All of Via’s problems are fixed by the acquisition of a manic pixie dream boyfriend (Nadji Jeter).
All of Via’s problems are fixed by the acquisition of a manic pixie dream boyfriend (Nadji Jeter).

The very effective and empathetic young actor Jacob Tremblay, who was so moving as the captive child of Room, is very good as Auggie; even the makeup required to create Auggie’s facial deformities cannot hide his warmth and intelligence, and he makes Auggie a delightful kid. And Wonder, the second feature from director Stephen Chbosky, does avoid the sappiness that it could so easily have wallowed in. But some of the story’s simplicities do fall into cliché: The rich kids at Auggie’s fancy new prep school are mostly awful; kind Jack is on a scholarship, and we may presume that it’s Auggie’s facial differences that keeps him on the right side of niceness, even though he’s clearly a rich kid. (The Pullmans live in a massive brownstone in swanky Park Slope, Brooklyn. Via also attends what could be a private high school.) That’s a little insulting, too: disability doesn’t make people nicer or better. Putting Auggie on a pedestal isn’t as helpful — or as nice or as kind — as Wonder would seem to believe it is.

I attended a special advanced public screening of ‘Wonder’ on World Kindness Day, November 13th. Learn more at kindness.org.

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