Hollywood has a long and enduring love affair with social outliers.
In countless films it has celebrated them as the outsiders, the others, who stand outside the banality and sameness of mainstream society and whether by design or unwanted but seized-upon circumstance, boldly forge their own path.
The thing with these films, many of which are very good, is that they tend to be heavy on the inspirationally-uplifting moments and light on the crushing, soul-destroying realities of the situation which the remarkable protagonist can eitehr surmount or by crushed by.
Life, of course, is quite so cut and dry, and while Wonder, based on the moving 2012 novel of the same name by R. J. Palacio, doesn’t depart radically from this well-honoured approach to outlier films, it does inject some much-needed reality into this commonly-portrayed scenario.
And reality, hard, cruel, rejection-filled reality is something that August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) knows far too much about for a kid of just 10.
Born with a facial deformity that compromises everything from breathing to sight and hearing, Auggie has been the recipient of 27 operations to help function as close to normal as possible.
A bright, tenacious kid for the most part, Auggie is, he admits in the opening voiceover, is almost like any other kid his age – he likes playing games on his X-Box, going to the park, and kidding around with his dad and he really loves Star Wars but, and this is a kicker of a “but”, he doesn’t look like any other 10-year-old.
So different does he look in fact that everyone stares at him, well nigh relentlessly and so when the time comes for him to end homeschooling by mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) who wants to return to her tertiary studies, Auggie is plunged into the harsh realities of school life for the first time where his only recourse at first is to imagine himself as an all-conquering celebrity astronaut adored by all rather than the object of unhidden sidelong glances and murmured gossiping.
Wonder doesn’t that everything is going to be wonderful.
In fact, it takes Auggie quite some time, and quite a number of fraught, tear-stained conversations with his mum, dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and even sister Via (Izabela Vidović) to come to grips with a world where he is more of a curiosity than an actual friend to anyone.
The bullying against him, led by cherubic handsome Julian (Bryan Gheisar), is sustained and cruel but ameliorated somewhat over time by friendships with some of the more courageous, less peer pressure-affected kids at the school such as eventual best friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and plucky Summer (Millie Davis) and eventually some of his former combatants.
What sets Wonder apart is that it doesn’t wholly focus on the way Auggie is set apart from the world.
Sure, he can’t change how he looks and the road for him in a society obsessed with conformity and unnerved by deviations is a difficult one but as the beautifully nuanced script by director Stephen Chbosky, Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad carefully examines, outliers comes in all sizes, shapes and forms and none of are immune from feeling as if we don’t fit in.
To that end, Wonder splits its narrative partially among four character viewpoints, giving us the world as seen by Auggie (primarily), sister Via who struggles with all kinds of loss and dislocation when best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) unaccountably shuts her out, Jack and Miranda whose act of social isolation is fuelled by hidden pain.
Using the hashtag #choosekind, Wonder doesn’t pretend that the solution to any of these life issues is foolproof and simple; in fact, it’s content to let its characters sit and stew in them for a while before things take a turn for the considerably better.
What is does do is encourage audiences, through the noble precepts of Auggie’s 5th grade teacher Mr Brown (Davide Diggs), to put themselves in the place of others, to consider what they might be dealing with and to choose to favour the fact that they need kindness and inclusion more than opprobrium and exclusion.
It may sound facile and a tad simplistic but it takes on way more substance than you might expect, bolstering Wonder from being some kind of one-note feel good effort into something far more complex and real.
Sure it has the requisite happy ever ending where adversity is conquered by neat and virtuously uplifting resolutions but is that such a bad thing?
After all, we’re constantly bombarded by the idea that changing anything, while admirable, is futile so when a film comes along that tells it like it is, that admits life can be tough, very tough, but that maybe it can get better, we should celebrate it, especially when it somehow manages to dodge the treacly sugar highs of most feel good films.
Auggie is, after all, informed by far more pain and rejection, even with a solidly loving family behind him than most, and you could well understand if eh simply throws in the towel.
But he doesn’t, despite quite a few setbacks and the fact that he eventually gets somewhere wholly and permanently good should be a clarion call for perseverance, not schmaltz-averse dismissal.
Via and the others all get happy endings of a sort – after joining a theatre group Via gets a lovely supportive boyfriend in Justin (Nadji Jeter) and a sense that she too can shine after living, reasonably amenably but not without some resentment, in Auggie’s considerable shadow – but Wonder balances this out with a the grim reality that life can be nasty and things don’t always set themselves right, eventually or at all.
Having said that, Wonder is a substantial, real, honest and exquisitely-lovely film about accepting yourself, no matter what others think, and accepting others without qualification that leaves you feeling like anything is possible, no matter how big the challenges your life may contain, and given life’s messy contrariness at the best of times, that’s something we all need to be reminded of no matter who we are.