By Gillian Croft, Square Bum Writers Group
“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” Wonder
As the mother of a child with severe disabilities and medical issues, I sobbed my way through Wonder, based on the book by Raquel J. Palacio. Wonder, portraying courage, friendship, and loneliness, follows the story of August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a Grade 5 boy with cranio-facial anomalies, as he courageously tackles his first year attending a typical school.
August (Auggie), who is funny and smart, is considered a “freak” by many of his classmates due to his “ugly” appearance. He states, “I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.” We see Auggie, surrounded by multitudes of children – and yet standing completely alone. Not only do the children isolate him, but most treat him as an “untouchable,” taunting him and labelling him with “The Plague.” Auggie is shunned in the lunchroom, given a wide berth in the hallways, and then overhears that the only friend he has, Jack Will (Noah Jupe) spends time with him out of a sense of “duty” and “feeling sorry” for him.
Auggie, having low social currency, is the victim of nasty notes, including a school photo in which he has been “removed” with a hand-scribbled opinion to “do everyone a favor and die.” While this scene is disturbing, there are many in our world who still correlate a child’s outward appearance with their right to be human, and one only has to Google pictures of children with severe facial deformities to find similar comments. Unfortunately, Auggie’s experiences are a fairly accurate portrayal of the world for many Special Needs families. Discrimination doesn’t have to be blatant to hurt, and may disguise itself in socially acceptable ways, noticed only by the victim. Auggie, in the face of this bullying and discrimination, continues to show kindness to those who treat him with hate. Nevertheless, he desperately wants to be known for who he is on the inside. His greatest wish, above all else, is just to have a friend.
Auggie’s medical encounters are powerfully portrayed through a noticeboard in the kitchen to which are taped hospital identification bands, souvenirs of twenty-seven previous surgeries. I found this moving – in my family we always took “before” and “after” photos to give us hope through difficult times – but I would have liked to have seen more of Auggie’s medical struggles. As many families of children with Special Needs pointed out on Social Media, the daily reality of life for their children includes multiple on-going medical procedures, learning disabilities, and academic lags due to fatigue and frequent illness.
Wonder affected those in our family in various ways. My youngest daughter talked about the scene where Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s sister, stays home from school for some rare “one on one” time with her mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), only to have this time “stolen” by her brother throwing up at school and coming home early. Via notes that, “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” In our family, the years have been such a blur that my daughter had forgotten the times that she had given up birthdays and presents, as we rushed her sister to hospital. Like Via, our youngest has been shaped by the experience of having a sibling with Special Needs. She has given up parts of her life, but she has also grown into a unique and strong personality just like Via. She will always speak up strongly for those without a voice, and especially for her sister. She is the only true friend her sister has.
Most of my friends who don’t have a child with Special Needs saw Wonder as a movie about bullying. For me, the strongest themes in Wonder were both Auggie’s persistent kindness and character in the face of this bullying, and also the theme of “alone-ness.” Social isolation is reflected through many of the characters as the story unfolds. Not only does Auggie struggle with friendships, but Auggie’s sister is initially portrayed as having lost a friend, and Auggie’s “happily married” parents (played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) also appear to have no friends, even at Via’s school. Most families of children with Special Needs who discussed this movie with me on Social Media pointed out that there are few happy endings when it comes to friendship and social inclusion… for either their children or themselves. One of these parents, of a child who has since passed away, opined that having a child with Special Needs and having friends was mutually exclusive. She discussed with me that unless someone has walked in her shoes, experienced the emotional upheavals of the medical issues, the heart-sickening moments of fear and panic, and the overwhelming anger, grief, and loss of control, that one wouldn’t have the strength to stick around as a friend for very long. I have found this mother’s words confirmed by other Special Needs mothers over the years, although some said that they still hold out hope that this will change in their lives… that in a sea of people who smile at them and their child, that they will be lucky enough to develop even one meaningful and lasting friendship. This is reflected in the words of Palacio when she notes, “it’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend.”
Wonder has many similar themes to Emma’s Song, a previous Golden Palm Screenplay Winner at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. Emma, like Auggie, experiences extreme social isolation when she develops a disability. Her best friend, Chelsea, is unable to deal with the “loss” of her friend, and stops coming over. Emma sits alone with her mother and expectantly waits for her friends to attend her party. When they don’t show up, this not only deeply affects Emma, but also affects her mother, Maggie. Maggie, who has lost much of her life and her career like Auggie’s mother, reaches a breaking point and has a devastating fight with her best friend, Susan. Protecting her own daughter, Susan rightly points out to Maggie that she should have better prepared Chelsea for the sight of Emma being spoon-fed in a wheelchair. The words of Palacio are as true for Emma’s Song as they are for Wonder, that, “when given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” Instead, Susan is unable to see the deep pain behind Maggie’s behavior, argues with her, and then leaves. Completely socially isolated, Maggie desperately tries to cope with her daughter’s disability alone.
Auggie’s story has a happy ending, a beautiful moment where his circle of love grows, and where he is no longer alone but “protected” by friends. In a scene where you truly believe that “there are more good people on earth than bad people,” Auggie’s best friend and some of his classmates courageously defend him from older bullies. Auggie and his friends gather on the beach afterward and throw rocks into the water in a moment of tears, bonding, and lasting friendship. In the words of Wonder, “You don’t need your eyes to love… You just feel it inside you… It’s just love, and no one forgets who they love.”
Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s characters resonate with brilliance and intellect in an era that discriminated not only against people of colour, but also against women. Despite the prejudices they faced, these women had a sense of their own worth. Beautifully put by Katherine, “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts – it’s because we wear glasses!” As female characters these three black women are not only strong heroes worthy of acknowledgement on International Women’s Day, but are also remarkable for their wisdom and courage in the face of great challenges.