The title of Stephen Chbosky’s film ‘Wonder’ (based on R J Palacio’s novel of same name) indeed is allusional in many ways, BY Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.
It’s a wonderful humane story of experiencing essential humanity hidden in all humans that bursts forth specially while caring of special or specially abled children in all societies. The film depicts heart rending tale about a ten-year-old kid, disfigured due to Treacher Collins Syndrome affliction, stepping from his hitherto sheltered existence to experience wonderful real world ; whose parents, sister, school, audience wondered about his coping when joining a school and rubber rubbing the road and whether reality would really bite? well, the bite turns out to be bitter sweet leaving all wonderstruck on wonderful way the boy copes up with all challenges ,to come up triumphant with trophy!! No wonder, everyone one comes out of theatre feeling good about life and people specially on seeing a heroic act, overcoming trials and tribulations tossed on path that is treaded by the weak and helpless.
Must say, timing the release of Wonder is indeed wonderful!! Coinciding its release in times of emotive family, filial and fraternal feelings, boosted by all round celebrations of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year is wonderful.
One must also say – they don’t make these types of sentimental, emotional, compassionate, heartwarming, gut wrenching, tear jerkers anymore. After all, very few want to be seen teary eyed in theatres or their vulnerability viewed in public. So in that sense, Wonder is a wonderful chip off the old block of old Hollywood blockbusters. How? Well, it has everything that a film that, in mould of yesteryears films, a whole family could watch together and go through entire gamut of emotions and come back with a happy footnote.
This film touches certain universal emotional elements experienced not only by American but nearly by all families, first and then society, in general. Consider these: unconditional maternal/paternal /parental love ( of Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson ) specially in perseverance, commitment, devotion and sacrifice of the mother ; compromises in career choices and professional pursuits specially of mother; sibling rivalry and slight experienced by sister (Olivia) in extra attention heaped on brother ; sibling rivalry , growing up teenage love, friendships ( relationships between Olivia and Justin and between Olivia and Miranda) ; initial doubts, , familiarity and friendships ( between Auggie and friends ) ; betrayal ( of friend Jack Will )empathy and compassion ( of principal and teachers) ;rivalry and snobbery ( mother of classmate threatening to stop fund contribution) ; integration issues like inclusiveness and diversity ( love between Olivia and Justin) etc.
The film alludes to an archetypical American society and of what all is good about an ideal American family life : affluence ( an upper middle class family of living in upmarket Manhattan housing block with all material conveniences: with access to all the material comforts of life ; access to good school as well as college education ; professional employment; American ‘s school going children’s obsession with Star War characters ( in kid wearing the helmet , décor of his room, humorous banter with principal on day of admission); good looking people with perfect clothing line; and like all picture perfect happy families, this one also faces challenges in bringing up a child with a disfigured face, who has to be enabled to face the world despite some ugly side of its face itself.
Julia Roberts has taken this challenging role of mom long time after ‘Stepmom’ wherein she enacted a role of a would-be wife stepping into shoes of a step mom with help of dying mom (played by Susan Sarandon); she also enacted a role of working mom mouthing expletives and platitudes in ‘Erin Brokovich’. So, one can say that, she may have resorted to some bit of easy regression into reservoir of recollections of such past roles for help. But still, her performance is praiseworthy as she displays an extensive range of emotion experienced by any mom bringing up such a disabled child (irrespective of levels and types of disability). Owen Wilson didn’t have to do much to do and acts as good counterfoil to Julia Roberts (Isabel), Jacob Tremblay (Auggie) and Izabela Vidovic (Olivia). Jacob Tremblay has enacted the role rather well though was greatly aided by the elaborate make up making up his facial impression and impact. His memorable role in the film ‘Room’ was somewhat similar in the sense of portraying a child’s vulnerability in facing the real world on first contact after prolonged seclusion. In that sense, the experience of playing that role may have helped a lot. Izabela is also superb in her role as a sister supporting a special sib and also undergoing her own growing up teen woes. Danielle Rose Russell as Miranda and Nadji Jeter as Justin as friends of Olivia are also superb.
Though far and few in between, Western movies have made some remarkable films about a facially disfigured individual fighting dual challenge, of internal demons and dilemmas running parallel to social acceptance and integration into society. Several decades ago, this subject (though of an adult) was superbly depicted in the film ‘The Elephant Man’. One can say that Wonder is a revisit of that subject in the sense that it touches the emotional chord more effectively due to its depiction of vulnerability of a small child needing much greater support and care than an adult and keeps the soft sentimentality and a happy family drama as its main focus, avoiding deeper questions and answers. Of course, one must not forget Peter Bogdanovich’s film ‘Mask’ (no not the now iconic one starring Jim Carrey) starring Cher as a mother to a young boy suffering from facial disfigurement due to ‘Lionitis’. That film also depicted similar integrations issues in school of a brilliant boy but ended on sad note with child dying in the end. In contrast, this Wonder wonderfully resolves everything happily in the end. Another film ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ also dealt with disability (of mental kind) of an adolescent and his relationship with siblings specially the brother but even this film left one wounded. In contrast, this film, as stated above, leaves one feeling good about life and people despite occasional hiccups. India also made a film about a girl/woman with a disfigured face in’ Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ but the issues depicted therein were totally devoid of reality. Indian films hardly cover such subjects for detailed depiction except for exceptions like Sparsh and Margarita with a Straw but they reach beyond a limited audience.
It’s a film about an interesting juxtaposition in society which, on the one hand, is obsessed with looking good and, on the other hand, how it deals and treats it’s not so good looking disfigured and disabled people in an empathetic, not sympathetic, way. Film says much about a society that seeks to integrate its disabled within the existing community rather than keeping them in their isolation and seclusion – an approach that was the hallmark of their treatment before the World War II.
In a way, this film states a variant version of Leo Tolstoy ‘s famous maxim- all happy families are alike but all happy families deal with their unhappiness in their own way in finding their own measure of happiness (variation done by me).
A feel good film. Brings out the humanity like a wave of tears and compulsion for compassion- in thought ant deed.