Movie Review: ‘Wonder’

“Wonder,” based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, chronicles the story of a boy with the genetic disorder mandibulofacial dysostosis, also known as Treacher Collins syndrome.

(Rated: PG [Canada] and PG [MPAA] for thematic elements including bullying and some mild language; directed by Stephen Chbosky; written by Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne (screenplay), based on the novel by R.J. Palacio; starring Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Julia Roberts, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Millie Davis, Danielle Rose Russell, Ali Liebert, Nadji Jeter; run time: 113 min.)

A Family’s Struggle

By Ted Giese

“Wonder” (2017) is a sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious fictional drama about a boy named Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) who suffers from the facial deformity mandibulofacial dysostosis, also known as Treacher Collins syndrome (TCS).

After many surgeries and years of homeschooling by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), Auggie enters Beecher Prep, a private preparatory school in his Upper Manhattan New York City neighborhood. The film follows Auggie’s fifth-grade year from the first to the last day, with all the ups and downs he experiences along the way.

The film is based on a best-seller by novelist R.J. Palacio, who was inspired to write the book after she took her children to get ice cream and her son was frightened by the sight of a boy with mandibulofacial dysostosis. The ice-cream-shop incident is referenced both in her book and in the film adaptation.

“Wonder” joins other movies such as “My Left Foot” (1989), “Mask” (1985) and “The Elephant Man” (1980) in presenting a character struggling with not being “normal” while highlighting the truth that everyone, even those who are “normal,” wants a full life absent of bullying and abuse. By including the stories of several other characters such as Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), the film achieves greater realism.

Alongside themes of gentleness and respect, “Wonder” deals repeatedly with coveting and bearing false witness. For instance, Via, feeling dejected at the apparent loss of her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and frustrated by how the family’s life revolves around Auggie, lies to a classmate, telling him that she is an only child.

It is further revealed that while working at summer camp, Miranda, who always felt plain and boring when compared to Via, also lied about her life. These instances of coveting and bearing false witness all intersect in a sustained investigation of the question of reputation.

Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), uses secular precepts to teach morals in his classes. For instance, a quote on the chalkboard reads: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

The quote is from Wayne Walter Dyer (1940-2015), an American self-help author and motivational speaker whose books can’t be recommended, as Dyer fits the “spiritual but not religious” category so popular today.

The film also includes precepts like “Your deeds are your monuments,” from an inscription on an Egyptian tomb, and “Audentes fortuna iuvat” (Fortune favors the bold), attributed to Virgil. Christian parents and teachers will want to remind the children that such sayings, however good from a worldly perspective, must come second to God’s Word.

A strength of “Wonder” is the presentation of a traditional, intact family. Both Roberts and Owen Wilson give solid performances as the children’s parents, with Wilson portrayed as a positive father figure. Thankfully, in “Wonder,” Auggie’s health-related and social challenges are not aggravated by his mother and father. It is encouraging to see a loving and warm traditional family in a Hollywood film. 

It is worth noting that when Auggie’s parents watch their son walk away on his first day of school, they pause for a moment and his mother prays, “Dear God, make them be kind to him.” It would have been even better if Christian faith were truly a part of Auggie’s family’s life, but hopefully “Wonder” will encourage people who interact with individuals who are “different” to be kind.

The Rev. Ted Giese (pastorted@sasktel.net) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to the Canadian LutheranReporter Online and KFUO.org; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.

Posted Dec. 5, 2017

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