These days, the holiday season begins in earnest, almost before the last-minute Halloween candy shopping ends. The cynic — and realist — in me recognizes that this is retailers’ genius marketing at work. Even so, I have to admit that there is something heartwarming about spending the remaining, darkened weeks of the year in holiday mode. In a world that seems increasingly dark and desperate, the magic of the holidays is a welcome respite. Who can blame people for looking for a little wonder in their lives?
This Friday, that feeling comes alive with the release of well, Wonder. Based on the book by R.J. Palacio, and starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Room’s Jacob Tremblay, Wonder is an unsentimental story of hope and joy, even in the midst of suffering and disappointment. The film encourages the viewer to find the wonder that can come in even the “ugliest” situations, if only we could learn how to really see.
The story centers on Auggie Pullman (Tremblay), a 10-year-old boy who, because of a genetic defect, has undergone multiple surgeries to allow him to hear, see, and have a “normal” face. Despite the great number of plastic surgeries he’s endured, he is “ugly” — at least according to superficial standards of beauty. Children who see him cry or avoid eye contact. Auggie is starting school for the first time, after years of homeschooling by his dedicated mother, Isabel (Roberts).
Auggie’s unusual appearance and suffering under the knife have made him a gentle, kind, and mostly self-aware kid. He faces constant bullying at the hands of a classmate and his friends, but because of his kindness and self-deprecating sense of humor, other students gradually begin to befriend him. As they look past his outward appearance, they can see the wonder of having Auggie in their lives and he can see the wonder that he really is.
But Auggie isn’t the only Pullman child who needs some wonder. Older sister Via lives a nearly invisible life in comparison to her younger brother. Both her parents rely on her to be the strong older sister, but can’t seem to see either Via’s own suffering or her hidden talents. The film shifts at one point to her perspective and we see her struggle with love for her brother and her own need to be seen as a wonder in her own right.
Wonder continues with these perspective shifts, which work well to remind the audience of the adage — or precept, as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne likes to say — to “be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The changes in point-of-view keep the movie from veering into the trite and sentimental and ground it in real human experience. Sometimes people with outward struggles can become self-centered, just as sometimes people who seem to have it together may not know how to ask for help. And yet all of us, bring some kind of wonder to the world.
Wonder is a great movie to ponder as Christians begin to head into the Advent season. Advent, though not a festive occasion like Christmas, has its own magic. Advent is the reminder that wonder comes unexpectedly, suddenly, and in the least imaginable places. If the Divine could put on the fragile form of humanity to become the child of an unwed teenage mother, born in the humblest of circumstances, wonder can be found in everyone who bears that God’s image.
Wonder opens in theaters on Friday, Nov. 17.