Love, loyalty permeate Stephen Chbosky’s ‘Wonder’

Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” based on a book of the same name by R. J. Palacio, explores how 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, born with facial differences, navigates family, friendship and school./ Courtesy of Vimeo

The entire movie theater erupted in applause. A huge smile on my face, my cheeks wet with tears, I took a deep breath as I watched the credits roll on screen for Stephen Chbosky’s incredibly moving film, “Wonder.” Based on a children’s novel by R. J. Palacio of the same name, “Wonder” explores the journey of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, played by exceedingly talented Jacob Tremblay—who also starred in the thriller “Room” and is, in my opinion, of unparalleled emotional intelligence for a child actor. Born with facial differences and having undergone 27 surgeries to help him see, breathe and hear without a hearing aid, Auggie grew up experiencing health issues and a fear of social stigmatization that prevented his parents from placing him in school until the fifth grade. However, feeling that home-schooling might not be a good escape route to continue pursuing, Auggie’s parents, played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, finally decide to enroll him in the local middle school. From there, the story is an inspiring, heart-wrenching and wholly uplifting account of loyalty, love, pain, rejection and unity, as the characters delve deep and explore themselves and their relationships.

The story’s initial unraveling involves the realization that Auggie has been deeply impacted by this aspect of his identity. Instances when he talks of Halloween being his favorite holiday because it’s the one day where people don’t stare at him and treat him normally, to moments where he mentions that would choose invisibility as his superpower, combine the innocence of childhood with insecurities rooted in serious issues of stigmatization. However, as the story progresses, it delineates the complexity of his character, thus humanizing him and indicating that while his life, his relationships and his self-esteem are very much influenced by the stares he gets and the snide comments he receives from your run-of-the-mill preppy school-yard bullies, he is not defined simply by what happened to him. As a quick-witted Star Wars lover who dreams of being an astronaut and has a remarkable affinity for the sciences, Auggie is finally depicted for what he is, which is more than just his facial differences.

The multidimensionality exemplified by Auggie’s character is not just limited to him, but rather, is a defining feature of the film. Told in chapters that highlight the perspectives of several different characters whose lives are intertwined, the film allows for the story to be not just about Auggie’s experiences, but also about how every significant person in his life is impacted by him. From his sister, Via, to his best friend, Jack Will, the people around him are also depicted in all their complexity, as their relationships with other people, and their perspectives and ways of seeing, adapt and transform due to Auggie’s presence and importance in their lives.

Via, his sister, has a trying relationship with her mother, who unconsciously directs most of her attention towards Auggie. As the neglected child, Via’s story is a touching one, reminding us that Auggie is not a singular entity whose problems are his alone; it highlights the interconnectedness of human relationships, the way people affect each other and the poignant intricacies of family dynamics. Via’s acute observations regarding how her mother’s artwork seems to be inspired almost exclusively by Auggie, with Via’s own presence almost never featuring in it, pull at the viewer’s heartstrings. We observe Via’s character selflessly take a backseat, as she resigns to the fact that quality time with her mother is highly unlikely, yet she doesn’t feel that she has the right to complain because she actually believes her younger brother deserves more attention. The emotional dynamics in operation start to put strains on her relationship with Auggie, as well as cause her to minimize her own achievements and milestones, expecting her parents to not care about them anyway.

Another relationship that touches audiences immensely is Auggie’s friendship with Jack Will. Jack is an instantly likeable character who treats Auggie nicely when he first joins school, creating the impression that they’re good friends. However, when Auggie overhears Jack bad-mouthing him, as he talks to the boys who regularly bully Auggie during school, audiences are left heartbroken, seeing the protagonist’s first real hope of adjusting at school fall apart. However, the story is later told from Jack’s perspective, and one sees this young 10-year-old boy display immense maturity when confronted with serious issues of stigmatization and bullying directed towards a friend. He forgoes a fairly common need to fit in—especially within the brutally judgmental environment of middle school—in order to exhibit real solidarity and loyalty towards Auggie. Watching such young children learn and grow, as they actively make choices regarding the kinds of people they want to be, is a poignant experience that reflects how people change and develop as a result of their relationships with others in their lives. The viscerally depicted personal struggles of these intimately connected characters adds a dimension of realism and relatability that truly makes one feel for all the people on screen. Viewers thus find it hard to blame anyone for their actions because one can see where each person is coming from throughout.

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