Directed by Stephen Chbosky, 2017
Four years ago, we were given a book which shot to the top of our favourites list: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I read it to each of our children when they are ten, and everyone we know who has read it has loved it. It’s the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a boy who loves his parents, his sister, his dog and Star Wars. Yet starting a new school in Year 5 presents a challenge, because Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement. It’s a book that teaches, tugs at the heart strings, and challenges and encourages children and adults alike.
So, the news that it was being turned into a movie was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Could it possibly be as good? How would they portray Auggie?
I had the treat of seeing this with a Year 6 school excursion. So, even surrounded by 50 twelve-year olds all chatting and snacking, the movie experience was undiminished. And when they all cheered at certain points, it was certainly fun to be part of a larger group experience.
It is truly an excellent adaptation. The wonder of Wonder is not only the engaging story of August himself, but the depth and range of characters. Different parts of the story are told from the perspective of other people, including his sister Via and friend Jack Will. No character is one-sided. These are fully fleshed people, each with positive and negative traits.
This a family movie and families would do well to see it together. It’s ideal for ages 10 and up. While it’s mostly appropriate for kids a few years younger, they won’t really get the nuance. It’s also a great movie for teens, who will both appreciate and understand how kids behave, but also will see their own lives reflected in Via, Auggie’s older sister at high school. She adds the insight of how siblings of kids with special needs learn to manage. (“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun . . . I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff.”)
The parents are cast brilliantly with highly dedicated mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) and fun, caring father Nate (Owen Wilson) almost stealing the show, demonstrating a strong marriage and real parenting strengths. It’s no wonder even despite their family’s complications, Via’s friend Miranda wishes Auggie’s family were her own.
The teachers (including Mandy Patinkin) are just the type of teachers you want your kids to have: committed, fair, able to determine kids’ issues and be sensitive to them. The idea of the monthly precepts isn’t as strong in the movie as in the book, but the main one taught by Mr Browne is emphasised: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This has become somewhat of a motto in our home in recent years. With kids that are very black and white, and keen to point out each other’s errors, choosing to be silent at points in order to show love has been a helpful lesson. Of course, I suspect this could be taken too far by some, being interpreted that you choose to only love rather than stand up for truth—but that is never the point of the precept in the book.
It’s full of fun cultural references. Auggie is a big Star Wars fan and this is woven beautifully into the movie with Chewbacca making a few special appearances; something that greatly appealed to my own Star Wars fan (and to be honest, to me too). When Isabel decides to return to her research thesis (put on hold when Auggie was born) she tries to recover her work from a 4” floppy disk. Of course, the kids have no idea what it is.
While there is nothing overtly Christian in the movie, the themes sing out the truth that we are loved, we have value, and that it’s who we are and how we live that matters, and nothing to do with how we look. This is a truth that God has already proclaimed: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7a). We are called to love our neighbours, and that includes people that look different. There is much here that could lead to honest discussion in our homes about we treat people and how we want to be treated. The messages within are ones you want your kids to think about.
There is no swearing but some insults fly between kids, there is one kiss between teenagers, one teen finishes her mother’s wine while she is asleep/passed out and Isabel jokes with Nate about getting drunk. Nate & Isabel make a few references to enjoying each other’s company (which would go over most kids’ heads) and there are a few scenes with kids fighting and bullying each other. This is what many kids see every day in their real lives.
There is however lots and lots of emotion. Numerous children in the group I saw it with were crying by the end, and all of the adults were weeping at points throughout. Be prepared to cry, even if you usually don’t. I suspect parents will find it harder emotionally than kids, but be prepared for your children to react. While throughout the movie the tears may be expressing concern, grief and pain; the tears at the end are joyful. The ending is excellent.
Few movie adaptations live up to the hype, but this one definitely does. Obviously, some details had to be jettisoned, and kids who know the book well may feel the loss of those elements. But the overall message of “choose kind” and that you need to get to know people on the inside has remained.
This is a highly-recommended movie with really only one condition—make sure you and your kids read the book too.