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‘Wonder’ has a truly wonderful message

By Rebecca Horvath • Dec 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM

If you need a feel-good movie to see this holiday season, buy a ticket for “Wonder.”

Based on the wonderful children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, it’s the story of Auggie Pullman, a young boy with severe facial deformities. Auggie’s parents have homeschooled him thus far, but decide to send him to regular school when he is going into fifth grade. Anyone who has ever been a kid could predict the reactions other kids have to the child who — despite being smart, sweet and friendly — looks very different from everyone else in school.

It’s heartbreaking to watch how children react to and treat Auggie, but it’s realistic. One girl, Summer, reaches out to Auggie and becomes his best friend even though it’s not a popular choice.

It all ends happily, with Auggie finding many friends and acceptance, but there are many lessons along the way. The most important: be kind.

An interesting way the story is told is through the perspectives of different characters. Seeing the world through Auggie’s eyes is heartbreaking — the way he prefers to stay hidden underneath his favorite space helmet or how he loves Halloween because it’s acceptable to wear a disguise — but switching to the perspective of his sister, Via, and a couple of the other kids makes it easier to understand other parts of the story.

For example, Via’s best friend has suddenly turned on her and the natural reaction is to dislike her character. But when we see her side of the story, we realize that it’s difficulties in her own life that have caused her behavior to change. Instead of disliking her, we feel sorry for her and root for her to reconcile with Via (which she does eventually).

Throughout the story, we see Via being sort of neglected by her family — while it’s unintentional, they’re so consumed by Auggie’s problems that his sister often feels isolated. It’s hard to be the one who is “different,” but it’s also hard to be the one who isn’t.

Another child Auggie’s age wants to be his friend but also must deal with the social pressure from other kids who call Auggie a “freak” or “weirdo.” Even if you have the best intentions, it’s hard to swim upstream, especially when you’re 10 years old.

The other points of view remind us that we shouldn’t judge until we’ve walked in another person’s shoes. We never know what’s going on in a person’s life — which usually has nothing to do with us — that can impact her behavior.

Aside from the scenes when Auggie is tormented, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film comes when the family’s dog — who was by Auggie’s side through his many surgeries and recoveries — dies. His father is shown sitting alone at the dining table late at night, weeping. It’s clear that his tears are not just for the lost dog, but for everything — the weight of the world resting on the shoulders of a loving father — and it’s impossible to not feel his pain.

Two themes stood out most in the movie. One is the obvious: kids can be really mean. Awful. Heartless.

The second thing is what I explained to my kids afterward. I told each of them, “I want you to be like Summer. You’re not the kid who is ‘different,’ so you be the one who makes a difference. You be the one to reach out to the kid who is excluded. You sit next to the kid who is alone at lunch. You be the one who doesn’t care what anyone else says — you just do the right thing.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I hope “Wonder” reminded my kids — and others — how important it is to be inclusive instead of exclusive. How reaching out can be a very small thing to them but a huge thing to the child who has felt alone.

Also important is standing up to bullies; in most cases, bullies continue their behavior because no one stops them, even if deep down they know it’s wrong. Kids need to be willing to step in stand up for a victim of a bully (or report to an adult if it might be dangerous to intervene on their own). It’s not always easy and there’s an inherent risk of social extradition, but it’s a vital skill to learn. (One scene in the movies shows us that bullying is often a learned behavior and parents can be the worst kinds of bullies.)

“Wonder” is charming, heart-warming and tear-inducing. It’s totally worth watching, for all ages, and the lessons it provides are important for everyone. Go see it.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. She can be reached at [email protected]

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