Liberal filmmakers, untalented but morally vain, have long favored the “bullied-disfigured student” genre. The reasons are obvious. In blasting schoolyard bullies and their adult counterparts, liberal filmmakers can engage in their own form of bullying by demanding a free pass from critical scrutiny, because their “hearts are in the right place.”
As a result, to write a negative review of a mediocre film preaching tolerance leaves the reviewer vulnerable to the dread charge of “intolerance.” The only way out is to write a review praising the film-makers for their “bravery.”
Thankfully “Wonder,” the new film by director Stephen Chbosky based on the 2012 novel by R.J. Palacios, makes no such demands. This tale of a formerly home-schooled and thus cocooned ten-year-old boy with pronounced facial disfigurements released into the “wild” of middle school asks to be judged on its cinematic merits. These merits make the film one of the best in the genre.
In an act of “tough love,” Auggie Pullman’s cash-rich parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) enroll him (remarkably played by Jacob Tremblay) in a Brooklyn prep school to teach their son how to fight back. Pullman has much to fight within mere minutes of his first day, when he encounters the unharnessed cruelty peculiar to children.
Students “brave” enough to befriend him soon succumb to peer pressure. Pullman will of course triumph over these circumstances, but it is achieved less by him acquiring the “toughness” his parents wish and more from outlasting the bullies by gentle perseverance.
A Universal Appeal
“Wonder” does not pull punches on the matter of Auggie’s disfigurement. His face, although altered by 27 surgical “corrections,” at times looks like it is going to slide off his skull. Audiences will at first be as focused on his features as his fellow students.
Not all wounds are cosmetic, as in the case of Auggie’s protective older sister, amazingly played by Izabela Vidoovic, who subtly shows the hurtful neglect brought about by the parents’ exclusive focus on her brother.
The rest of the cast is remarkable. Julia Roberts gives a restrained performance that does not rely on her trademark quivering lower lip. Owen Wilson’s goofy charm would seem the last person to be in a dramatic film, but as the father he shows an ability for empathy as well as a steely determination to toughen up his son. Wilson’s broken nose even gives him a symbolic link to Auggie.
In the hands of a more class-warrior director, the film would highlight the privileged status of Pullman’s tormentors, and link their cruelties to a bratty snobbishness. Chbosky’s priorities, however, aren’t partisan, but universal in scope. He assumes that everyone has a common humanity, even the leader of the bullies, an upper-class thug named Julian, that can be appealed to if the students would drop the defense mechanism of bullying.
Eschewing Comic Book Portrayals
The universal theme of the underdog fighting back against the bullying mob, and in the case of Auggie, being eventually lionized by them, has something in it for all members of the political spectrum. The film’s warm portrayal of family values (for a time, Auggie’s family is the only support group he has) and its “everyone can be a hero” message will appeal to conservatives.
“Wonder” affords much-underappreciated teachers a heroic role. The principal (Mandy Patakin) and teachers are Auggie’s support system on school grounds. His homeroom teacher (Daveed Digs) tries to “educate” his class about tolerance and recognizing the good in all without drenching the audience in syrup. His science teacher takes seriously Auggie’s desires to be a scientist—his wearing of an astronaut helmet in public is as much an expression of his goals as a means to hide his features.
To his tormentors, Auggie’s obsession with Star Wars and astronauts becomes a means for insult. Within mere minutes of his first day, he is labeled “Barf Hideous.” But through all the torments and betrayals, Auggie stays gentle, and is willing to risk ridicule by asking questions in class about the meaning of life.
Wilson and Roberts, both liberal Democrats, are obviously proud to be in this film that champions those who are “different.” And liberal film critics are already reading the film as commentary not just on the cruelties imposed on the physically deformed but also those inflicted on the victims of societal homophobia and racism.
But by eschewing the standard liberal comic book treatment of the intolerant as “evil” and instead presenting bullies as “handicapped” in protecting their fragile emotions as Auggie is facially, Chbosky is more authentically tolerant than the liberals who smugly advertise their own. The result is a film that is gentle in all senses of the word, including its treatment of our current phenomenon of school bullying.