“Who is it that I aspire to be?” asks Mr. Browne in the new film “Wonder.” “That is the question we should be asking ourselves all the time.”
Mr. Browne is August “Auggie” Pullman’s fifth-grade teacher. Auggie was born with severe facial deformities. By age 10, he has had 27 surgeries, enabling him to breathe, see and hear without an aid.
Still, he continues to look different, or, as Auggie puts it, “not ordinary.” Nevertheless, his mother, having home-schooled him until now, feels he’s ready to enter a mainstream school.
The genius of the story is that it starts out being about Auggie’s resilience in facing the real world without his astronaut helmet to shield him, but evolves into a test of another kind — the other kids’ ability to accept difference.
Not surprisingly, most of the kids don’t do well when first coming into contact with Auggie. They stare, mock him and bully him. They are afraid to touch him, thinking he has “the plague.”
Fortunately, they are surrounded by adults who guide them and teach them that each of us can choose on an hourly basis to reach for our best selves. “When given the choice between being right or kind,” says Mr. Browne, “choose kind.”
A couple of the kids begin to look beneath the surface, to see Auggie’s character — his heart and soul. They discover that he’s not just smart, funny and fun, but he’s a really good friend. Interracial friendships and relationships also blossom.
While Auggie continues to grow stronger, the adults stay on message: Every moment is a choice. No one is born ugly on the inside. We are continually making the choice to live lives of kindness and compassion.
The kids backtrack. Auggie loses confidence. “You are not ugly, Auggie,” reassures his mom, played beautifully by Julia Roberts. “You have to say that because you’re my mom,” Auggie cries.
“Because I’m your mom it counts the most, because I know you the most,” she responds.
True beauty can be found only well beneath the surface.
“Wonder” even teaches compassion for bullies. After hearing about one of the bullies, Auggie’s mom says: “He probably feels badly about himself. When someone acts small, you just have to be the bigger person.”
One can see the movie, based on R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same name, as one big smack in the face at President Donald Trump and his politics of hate. And, sadly, it is. Watching the movie, one can’t help thinking about Trump mocking a disabled reporter, his bullying of anyone who criticizes him, his repeated attacks on women as “fat” and “ugly.”
But the movie is just as much a rebuke of the fashionable politics of victimhood and conformity. Auggie has no interest in either one. “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out,” says his sister.
The immaturity and cynicism of both political extremes has led to divisiveness worse than in any schoolyard, a space where we now look for the worst in each other. “Wonder” shows the ugliness of people, but more important it shows the beauty — our profound capacity for empathy.
Unfortunately, in our country today the responsible adults seem to have left the room. Who is guiding us to reach for the better angels of our nature, as President Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address? Can a children’s movie become the moral leader the country so desperately needs right now?
One can see the movie … as one big smack in the face at President Donald Trump and his politics of hate.
“Auggie can’t change the way he looks,” says Principal Tushman to the parents of the lead bully, who had Photoshopped Auggie out of the class photo so they wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of their friends. “Maybe we can change the way we see.”
We needed “Wonder Woman” to show us how a strong female leader acts. Perhaps we need “Wonder” to teach us that we — each of us — can be the superheroes of our lives.
Or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it: “There is a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. The righteous are humble, the self-righteous are proud. The righteous understand doubt, the self-righteous only certainty. The righteous see the good in people, the self-righteous only the bad. The righteous leave you feeling enlarged, the self-righteous make you feel small.”
The true wonder is that this movie came out just when our country needed it most.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic living in New York City.