Space helmets are cool.
In fact, August Pullman (Auggie for short) loves his space helmet. Not only does it help him pretend to be an astronaut—which any 11-year-old who loves science, video games and Star Wars will tell you is awesome—but it also totally covers his face. And on a day like this one, that’s a particularly awesome thing, too.
Auggie’s mom calls him a “wonder.” And he may in fact be one, in a clinical sort of way: It’s taken 27 different surgeries just to help him function like any other kid his age. But Auggie would prefer it if he could simply be labeled as … normal.
You see, Auggie was born with a congenital disorder that caused severe facial disfigurement (among other health problems). So when he walks into a room, well, normal is not the first thing that comes to people’s mind.
Auggie has learned to cope with that unfortunate, sideshow-like public existence. And he’s lived a fairly average life with his parents, Isabel and Nate, and older sis, Via. Until now, though, he’s been homeschooled by his mom. And today it’s time for him to venture out to public school and 5th grade.
Auggie has already toured the school a few days back. Mr. Tushman, the principal, made arrangements for a couple of other kids to show him around the empty facility to give him a feel for the place. The kids were nice about it. But Auggie could tell that one boy, Julian, saw him as a flat-out freak. Julian is one of those kids who will smile and be nice in front of adults, but privately do hurtful things to anybody he doesn’t care for.
He doesn’t care for Auggie.
So, yeah, space helmets are cool. And as Auggie walks with his family toward the Beecher Preparatory School’s front courtyard, he wishes he could keep it on all day. Or maybe just keep walking with the people he loves, those he knows love him.
But he can’t. It’s time to stop, take off his helmet, walk into the school on his own and let the open-mouthed staring begin. It’s time for Auggie to see what “normal” really looks like.
Mr. Tushman and another teacher named Mr. Browne both try to make school a safe place for Auggie, one where he can have a thoughtful learning experience. Both of them come to Auggie’s aid at times. Mr. Browne repeatedly asks kids to think about their choices, namely who they want to be and become. “Your deeds are your monuments,” he tells a class of kids.
And though those encouragements toward kindness and wise choices don’t always seem to be applied by the student body, eventually we see some kids begin to mature in positive ways. They begin to take notice of others’ behavior, and one by one they cross the self-imposed demarcation line between Auggie and themselves. As they do so, friendships begin to blossom.
The film also takes the time to look at Auggie’s changing world from a variety of perspectives, including that of Auggie’s sister Via; his new friend, Jack; and Via’s estranged friend, Miranda. Eventually it’s dramatically demonstrated that a determined, loving family can not only pull together and see its way through trying times, it can also have a glowing, positive impact on people outside the immediate family.
The Pullmans comfort one another, express their love for each other and verbalize the pride they feel for each family member’s accomplishments. And after gaining friends and acceptance, Auggie declares that many of the friends, family and teachers who surround him also deserve praise and applause—something we can so easily forget to give in our day-to-day lives.
The Pullman family isn’t particularly spiritual, but Isabel does pray aloud, “Dear God, please make them be nice to him,” when dropping Auggie off at school one day.
In the course of finding her bearings in a new school year, Via meets a “theater nerd” named Justin and talks about missing her deceased grandmother, who always supported her. “Your grandmother’s still cheering you on,” Justin assures her.
Via and Justin eventually kiss. We hear about someone who got divorced and remarried.
We hear that Auggie has endured many painful surgeries just to enable him to eat, breathe and hear properly. When things are difficult at school, Auggie’s dad makes it clear that Auggie should feel free to push back against anyone who tries to hurt him. When playing dodgeball in gym class, all the boys bombard Auggie. “What evil man invented dodgeball?” Auggie wonders.
Early on, Jack tells Julian that if he looked like Auggie, he’d kill himself—a painful comment that Auggie overhears. But later, after realizing how foolish his words were, Jack gets angry at Julian’s continued nasty comments about Auggie’s appearance and punches the other boy in the face. Jack and Julian wrestle and batter each other until a teacher intervenes.
Later still, after Auggie and Jack have mended fences with each other, a couple of older 7th-grade boys begin picking on them. Jack jumps to Auggie’s defense and gets shoved to the ground, hitting his head on a rock. Auggie is pushed and shoved, too. A group of their schoolmates then leap into the fray to even the odds, with multiple kids wrestling and punching each other.
A bully misuses Jesus’ name once. There are also a few exclamations of “oh my god” and “shut up.” Someone says something “sucks.” Kids call Auggie “ugly” and “a freak.”
When introducing himself to Auggie, Mr. Tushman smilingly talks of all the ways kids have joked about his name: “Tushy, Butt Man, Butt Face—I’ve heard ’em all.”
Auggie’s parents drink wine. His mom jokingly exclaims, “Let’s get drunk!” to her husband after she accomplishes a tough task. Miranda’s divorced and depressed mother drinks wine, seemingly to numb her pain and disappointment about her life.
The Pullmans tell family stories and joke about someone passing gas. A child urinates outdoors (offscreen). Julian bullies Auggie in a variety of ways, sometimes subtly in public and other times quite hurtfully. He draws distorted, ugly pictures of Auggie, calling him “Darth Hideous.” He even suggests that Auggie should “do everyone a favor and die.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Julian’s parents turn out to be rather insensitive people, too.
At first, most of the other kids at school follow Julian’s mean-spirited lead, isolating Auggie and repeating the rumor that his touch will spread a virus. Elsewhere, Auggie lets a struggling Jack copy off his test. Via lies about something. (But later apologizes.)
It’s easy to slap together a sappy pic. Filmmakers do it all the time—jerking forth a tear and creating something that parents can drag their kids to in hopes that positive (albeit a bit cheesy) messages might take hold.
But it’s an altogether different task to create something like Wonder.
*Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson earnestly pour their hearts into this poignant, realistic story about a young son who is different. It stitches together a heartfelt world populated with loving parents, admirable teachers, and kids who believably struggle with who they are and what they need.
Director Stephen Chbosky and his able cast acquitted themselves admirably in telling Auggie’s painful-but-inspiring story. Yes, in the real world, someone like this disfigured boy might well have suffered much more physical and emotional bullying than we actually see onscreen here. But we nevertheless get the point very well: It’s hard to be different, to be anything but normal.
Mr. Browne, one of Auggie’s teachers, points out that “when given the choice between being right and being kind, [kids should] choose [to be] kind.” That thoughtful precept applies to how Chbosky has crafted his film as well, and it’s definitely the primary theme running through this wonder-filled narrative.
The result? Wonder does the hard, empathetic, loving work and lets us wax sappy about it. And that’s a movie-going distinction that Mom and Dad will appreciate.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.