“Wonder”: a film about lookism, and more about the rest of the family and school rather than the boy himself

Wonder” (like “Stronger”) is another film that addresses lookism and the challenges that someone with a visible deformity will face socially in life. I was reluctant to see it out of what I feared would be sugary moralizing.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based on the 2012 children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, it presents us with a fifth grader August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) with a genetic facial deformity called mandibulofacial dysotosis, and we’re told that he has had over twenty surgeries as child. The actual physical appearance is toned down;  it is not particularly abnormal, and all you notice is a couple scars.  (I could mention neurofibromatosis, the subject of David Lynch’s 1980bw  film “The Elephant Man” about Joseph Merrick in 19th Century London, which gets around to modeled stagecraft.)

But, much to is credit, the film gradually becomes a story about the rest of the family members and others at his private prep school, rather than just about him.

But the film opens almost as if it were to be animated, with a shot of a spacesuit helmet, as we gradually see a little boy lying on his back in bed with it on, and with a bedspread that continues the space suit image.

His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and father Nate (Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him. We’ve been shown a flashback of the birth, with a “teenage” obstetrician (Shaun Murphy?) and the nurses carry him away in horror when the see his face, almost like he was “Rosemary’s Baby”.

But now its time for middle school, and he’s sent to a fancy prep near Lincoln Center.  So, yes, he and the family have to deal with bullying as (in the previous film yesterday) does the school. Why would kids bully him?  Because they want to be affiliated with the “best” and want to come out on top of a survival of the fittest game?  I’m reminded of the WB show “Gossip Girl” with the rogue blogger Serena turns wealthy teens into proto-Apprentice candidates (like Penn Badgley’s character Dan).  But there, these are younger, middle school kids.  There is a nasty incident of a passed note saying “Freddie Kruger”.  I recall when I was substitute teaching at a middle school in 2005 a kid passed an anti-semetic note to another and got into trouble, as did I, for not preventing something I could not possibly see.  I’m also reminded of an incident in my own Ninth Grade (p. 21 in the DADT 1 book) where I spread rumors and even taunted a student who had experienced an epileptic fit in algebra class (I called it “all those convulsions”), something that sounds like throwing up in class  Well, that happened to me in second grade and was particularly traumatic.

That theme comes up in the movie a few times.  The family dog gets it, and has to be put down, but she is old. In the meantime, a number of the older kids try out to play in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.  Big sister Via is an understudy, and when the lead girl says she fears she will throw up on stage, Via gets to shine.  (That would be a real horror if it happened;  it never happens on Broadway.)   A little bit of the play gets performed in the movie (the play itself has been filmed several times).

At the end, the tone changes, as August gets a science fair award.  I was reminded of Jack Andraka’s award in 2013 at age 16 for an inexpensive pancreatic cancer test he had invented (as detailed in his book “Breakthrough”). Maybe the allusion is intentional.

The film has some interesting brief scenes on Coney Island (near my favorite “Seaside Courts”) and also upstate, in a lake area (Adirondacks?)  According to imdb, except for establishing shots in NYC, most of the film was shot in British Columbia.

Here’s an ABCNews story about another real life case.

Picture: an arts school near Lincoln Center, my photo, Feb. 2013.

Name:  “Wonder”
Director, writer:  Stephen Chobsky, R. J. Palacio (novel)
Released:  2017/12
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/9, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, January 9, 2018 at 10:30 PM EST)