August Pullman, the ten-year-old boy at the center of Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder, is severely deformed: the bridge of his nose reaches to his forehead in a straight line, the corners of his eyes are pulled down in a perpetual sob, his cheeks are traced by scars, and withered ears peek out from under his long hair. One dreads to think what he might have looked like before the 27 plastic surgeries he mentions near the beginning of the film. Auggie’s devoted mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), has been homeschooling him since he was small, but the time has come for Auggie to join the world. As the story opens, he, Isabel, and Auggie’s gentle, laid-back father, Nate (Owen Wilson), are anxiously preparing for the first day of class at the local public school, where Auggie will be dropped into the shark-infested waters of fifth grade.
I come to this review highly credentialed because, growing up, I paid some of the same dues as young Auggie. When I was born, my left ear was only a nubbin of flesh, and from age four to 11, I underwent 13 plastic surgeries to construct something that looked halfway normal. These involved skin grafts from my legs and later, in a more invasive procedure, cartilage extracted from my ribcage. Seeing one’s body carved up and reassembled can be horrifying for a child; I still remember the grinning doctor who, having painfully cut through and plucked out the stitches in my chest and drawn out a length of black surgical thread, handed me the tweezers and asked if I wanted to finish the job myself. At some point there was talk of drilling a hole through my skull to create an auditory canal, but when I was in sixth grade my parents decided enough was enough and the surgeries ended, leaving my ear like an unfinished swimming pool.
Because of that history, I may approach Wonder less sentimentally than other viewers (at least that’s my excuse this time). So you can take my word for it that the movie, adapted from a children’s book by R.J. Palacio, treats its young protagonist and his craniofacial deformity with respect and common sense. The film delves inside not just Auggie and his overlooked older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), but also several of their classmates, who are much easier on the eyes but have as much trouble looking in the mirror as Auggie. So while Auggie’s experience in school doesn’t exactly square with mine—the kids at school bully him for his disability, which was considered uncool even when I was growing up—I have to admire a storyteller who recognizes that emotional flaws can be every bit as debilitating as physical ones.
One thing Chbosky gets right is the discomfort of being stared at by strangers. “You’re gonna feel like you’re all alone, but you’re not,” Nate tells Auggie when the family drops him off at school—loving words but a paltry defense against the sea of eyes widening with sick fascination as Auggie ventures through the playground and the crowd parts to let him pass. This shot from Auggie’s perspective wouldn’t be nearly as haunting if the director hadn’t already played on our voyeurism in the opening scenes, where Auggie (a science whiz and Star Wars fanatic) romps around the family’s house in a spherical white astronaut’s helmet whose black visor hides his face. Chbosky gives us an uncertain glimpse of Auggie in his bedroom at night when the boy pulls off his helmet and his face is reflected in the darkened glass of a window, but only the next morning, when his parents take him to meet the principal, are his features fully exposed.
Wonder takes place in a school full of wise, with-it teachers and cruel, clueless children, which doesn’t really square with the more complicated social terrain I remember. The principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), appoints a trio of kids, including Jack and Julian, to welcome Auggie to the student body, though they mainly pull away from him once classes have begun. Jack (Noah Jupe) connects with the new kid immediately but takes his social cues from rich, handsome Julian (Bryce Gheisar), whose personal antagonism toward Auggie progresses from smart remarks (“Do you eat special food?”) to physical bullying to vicious notes and cartoons stuffed into Auggie’s locker. All of that can and may well happen, but in my own school experience from kindergarten onward, hassling someone because of a physical deformity was considered obnoxious (and unnecessary, because in fifth grade you can get hassled for nothing at all). I had more trouble from well-meaning but incompetent teachers who’d single me out in class and invite the other students to pity me.
My relationships with my siblings were all shaped (perhaps misshaped) by the inordinate amount of attention I got from my parents, a dynamic to which Wonder is well attuned. After sticking with Auggie for a while, Chbosky turns to Via, a high-schooler whose identity has been defined by her younger brother. Via loves and looks out for Auggie, but she craves the attention of her mother, who’s even more preoccupied with the boy now that he’s caught up in the social crises of middle school. Via’s best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), returns from summer camp and inexplicably freezes her out, though Via keeps this heartache to herself (“I just knew my family couldn’t take one more thing,” she explains). Her life brightens when a classmate named Justin (Nadji Jeter) urges her to audition for the school play with him and they edge toward romance. Via is so delighted to be the object of his gaze that she deletes Auggie from her life, telling Justin she’s an only child.
This being a family film, Auggie triumphs at the end, winning not only a place for himself in the school but a medal, awarded at the last assembly of the year, for the positive influence he’s exerted over the student body. Apparently nothing can stop educators from singling out a kid for his disability and using him as part of their lesson plan. Prior to that scene, however, Wonder levels the social playing field by widening its narrative frame to focus on Jack, Julian, and Miranda, each of whom hurts as much as Auggie and his family. In one scene Miranda—who lives alone with her divorced, bitter, and lonely mother—stands outside the Pullmans’ house, spying on them through a window as the happy foursome decorate their Christmas tree. Like Auggie, Miranda has serious problems, but hers are invisible to others, and those are usually the kind that get you in the end. v