My review of Wonder the film – a close to accurate depiction of living with a facial difference and the impacts of bullying
This post contains spoilers. I also received free movie tickets to Wonder from Village Roadshow. Thanks Village!
I loved Wonder the film. Loved it. And I’m relieved that I did. This is my review-ish on the film. It contains spoilers. There are a lot of my own experiences in this review, because I resonated a lot.
Of course, I still have reservations about how it was marketed, authentic casting and #ownvoices. As with many of the people I quoted, I had issues with how the film was marketed – it objectified people with facial differences. After seeing the film, I think the headlines “Inspirational” and “heartwarming” could be replaced with “a lesson in life with a facial difference” and “bullying a kid who looks different is not cool” – because that’s what I got out of the film.
I thought Wonder was moving, smart, funny and I think it really teaches the audience about life with a facial difference. My experiences are so similar to Auggie’s – apart from the facial surgeries, but I’ve had many other treatments and stays in hospital. I’ll expand on this later, but I feel that Auggie wasn’t pitied because of his facial difference, but because of how he was treated, and there were some really clear examples of bullying (from microaggresions to overt bullying) to make audiences think and understand the impact of their behaviour.
Since publishing my blog post on Friday, which highlighted the issues I had with it in the lead up to release, and gave tips for discussion post film, I’ve had some more discussions with other people with facial differences (and without), and got thinking more. The discussion on my Facebook was very insightful and you can read that here.
I’ve been extremely open of my love of Wonder the book over the past three years. And I’m glad it exists. I recommend and give it to many people. I identify with a lot of the themes and have read it a few times.
But it can be tricky to think and write critically about something like Wonder – media and art that ultimately benefits us – because it’s expected that we should be grateful it exists in the first place. And writing an opposing opinion might alienate people – from all sides. I’m never claiming to speak for the entire facial difference community – I almost always seek additional viewpoints, and welcome discussion on my posts. And I never want to harm. Not all disabled people think and feel the same way (I’ve spoken to lots of people with facial differences and disability who loved it, and don’t think Auggie needs to be played by someone with Treacher Collins syndrome, and also I know parents who think the film is problematic.)
In reading perspectives about the film prior to its release hasn’t meant my love for Wonder hasn’t changed. But as I’ve grown, and learnt more, I’ve realised that there needs to be more authentically diverse voices alongside Palacio’s, and it’s important there is authentic casting in film. I constantly think about who media and art is made for, and who it benefits, exploits, includes and excludes.
We are allowed to change our minds. It’s ok to like one thing about something but not like another thing about it. Like Pip said, we can be a cake cheat. But this isn’t me eating humble pie. I still stand by the previous post.
So here’s my review.
The film starts with Auggie Pullman’s parents Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts) saying that Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) needs to start middle school with all the other new students. He visits the school and is introduced to three kids – Jack, Julian and Charlotte. Jack and Charlotte treat him well, despite initial discomfort about his face, but it’s clear Julian has bullying tendencies – asking curious and rude questions about his appearance and doubting Auggie’s intelligence. Auggie goes to school, but his first day was difficult, with further bullying from Julian. Meanwhile, his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) feels like she’s always left out because Auggie takes so much of their parents’ focus.
Jacob Tremblay does not have a facial difference, and you will recall this was one of my issues with the film. In the Facebook discussion of my previous blog post, my friend Linda told me that RJ Palacio pushed for casting a boy with a facial difference.
“Writer Palacio says: “I was pushing hard to cast a boy with Treacher Collins but finding one the right age, who had the right facial differences, whose parents would let him miss school for months of shooting, leaves a very small pool of people.
“One boy, Nathaniel, came close. The studio flew him to California for a screen test. But acting can be tough. You have to read the lines 30 different times, in different ways, with 100 people watching you, opposite Julia Roberts.
“Nathaniel had physical limitations, he was hard to understand sometimes and if you have a $20million movie you have to make that call. The family did become consultants on the movie, though, and during filming his dad said to me, ‘Thank God they didn’t cast Nathaniel. It would have been too much’.
“They wanted someone who could bring Auggie to life as beautifully as possible and Jacob did that. He did all he could to be respectful of the fact he was representing this population.” Some Treacher Collins families have also argued Auggie’s face is not “different” enough in the film, and Palacio admits: “I pushed to have his facial differences more obvious. If I were making the movie, I would have done it differently.”
(Linda also said some great things about her experience of being a child with a facial difference, and why the book meant so much to her on my post. It’s definitely worth a read.)
Additionally, I’ve since read that a lot of research and consultation with people with facial differences went into the film. Jacob Tremblay, who plays Auggie, reached out to children with facial differences
The film did ring true for me – especially the way people reacted to Auggie’s face. Clearly a lot of research went into the experiences. The initial look – (Auggie said everyone has the same look when they see him), to the constant, relentless staring, giggling, avoidance and jibes in the schoolyard. The film, like the book, took me right back to my school days where kids wouldn’t sit next to me for fear of contagion. I even had a similar experience with a photographer who came to take our class photo, and he called the kids cute names like “Cinderella” and “Batman” and I was called “Tomato Face”.
Something that I wish I had back at school was the unwavering support of the teachers. Mr Brown and Mr Tushman never victim blamed Auggie. They never asked how Auggie could change himself to prevent the bullying. Mr Tushman said “If Auggie can’t change his looks, we have to change how we see him” – ams I wanted to cheer. The teachers saw the micro-aggressions and bullying for what it was, and punished the aggressors accordingly. Teachers having our backs is such a crucial thing, and I hope teachers who see the film recognise this.
Another thing that resonated with me was Auggie’s fandom – the idea that the good Star Wars characters protected him. His imagination is big, and so was mine as a kid and teen. I buried myself in books and sought solace in fandom – music lyrics mostly. It took me away from the real world for a while. I’m taking Adam with me so I can see it again, and the Star Wars references is a big reason.
Something I hadn’t experienced is Auggie’s love for Halloween – where he can blend in because dress ups means everyone is on the same playing field. He sometimes uses props to hide his true self – like the astronaut helmet given to him by his sister’s best friend Miranda.
Auggie wore the astronaut helmet for his own self protection and also to feel aspirational – he loves science and dreams of becoming an astronaut. In early scenes, wearing his helmet made Auggie feel like he was powerful, walking on air, with flashes to him wearing a full astronaut suit. The helmet was worn when he’s had bad days. It’s revealed his Dad hid hit – I guess for him to build resilience, but also because his Dad missed seeing Auggie’s face. That was a beautiful moment – his Dad confirmed his worth and that he deserves love and to be seen.
And the love and protection from his parents got me too. They reminded me so much of my parents – perhaps a little more protective than mine, but so loving and encouraging. I think back to the time I was bullied at school, and thought, if these kids hate me, why do I even deserve my parents’ love?
The astronaut helmet made me think of how easy it was for Auggie as a child to cover up his face – and it is acceptable because being an astronaut is often a childhood dream – but how easy is it for an adult to do this?
Auggie didn’t want pity – he was horrified to know some kids had been asked to talk to him before he started. But he also wanted real friends. I loved how when Auggie found true friends, they stuck with him. The scene where Summer told him she will sit with him because she wanted “nicer friends” and touched his hand made me smile.
“You’ll get the plague”, Auggie said.
“Good”, Summer replied.
And I loved it when Jack took the time to put Auggie at ease through jokes about his eating, and the question “why don’t you get surgery”, to which Auggie replied “This is the result” – just like Belinda said on You Can’t Ask That.
When his classmates saw what a great kid Auggie was, they drew to him. Just like there is a pack mentality of bullying, there is a pack mentality of kindness.
I actually didn’t cry at anything related to Auggie. My throat choked up when bullying occurred, though. The bit I did cry at was when Auggie’s older sister Via was really noticed by her Mum during the play, because she believed the family “revolved around the son [sun]”, and her Mum made Auggie the centre of her (drawing) universe for so long.
The film did an excellent job of highlighting what bullying looks like, its impact, and his it comes in many forms. I think the biggest success of the film will be for viewers to see this and reflect on their behaviour. Often bullying is hard to spot. Wonder highlighted micro-aggresions (some examples include people’s initial reactions, “this seat is taken”, the constant asking about Auggie’s face despite knowing the answer) – overt bullying (exclusion, being compared to an evil character, note passing and mean depictions through drawings, comments like “you’ll catch the plague” if you touch Auggie and photoshopping him out of photos). There were two bullying moments that punched me in the gut:
When Jack, Auggie’s supposed best friend, said to Julian (the biggest bully) “I’ll kill myself if I looked like him “, and that he hung out with Auggie due to pity; and
When people thought they needed to prepare their friends for how Auggie looks.
The second one happens to me, I know it. I’m also sometimes asked about my friends’ disability when they leave the space. I hate it.
Additionally, the film showed peer pressure of being uncool by association, and the desire by everyone to fit in. I’ve definitely experienced people (kids, teens) who are embarrassed to be seen with me. Jack was already on the margins with an underprivileged background, and so perhaps bullying Auggie was a way to be ‘one of the gang’. It hurt me so much when Jack said he’d kill himself, and consequently it hurt Jack too – he was left without a good friend in Auggie for some time.
While Auggie was encouraged to be the bigger person, but he didn’t suppress his feelings when he was bullied. He lashed out, cried, got angry, and was rude back. So often there is the expectation of us to be kind and meek all the time, but Auggie showed how this incessant bullying chipped away and that he was in fact going to react.
I didn’t pity Auggie because of facial difference but because the way he was treated, and I think the cinema audience felt the same way. There were gasps and sighs and a lot of laughs (because there really were some funny moments). At one point when Via kissed Justin, her boyfriend she met in drama class, a kid yelled out “get a room!”, and then when Mum and Dad kissed, a kid (maybe the same one) yelled “seriously!”. If I could compare the reaction to disability movies, the audience for Wonder was much more respectful than the one for Me Before You. As I wrote last year, there was a distinct ableist gaze and some laughing throughout. Yet during Wonder, people – and e audience was made up mostly of kids – showed immense empathy. Ableism and bullying is taught, and these kids in the audience seemed really respectful.
On the idea that ableism and bullying is taught – there was a confronting scene where Julian is called into Mr Tushman’s office after he was caught writing on the back of a class photo that Auggie was cropped out of. Julian had written that Auggie should kill himself, and Mr Tushman also had a collection of drawings and notes from Julian mocking Auggie’s appearance. It turned out that Julian’s parents were as big a bullies as he is. Julian’s mother photoshopped Auggie out of the class photo, and told the Mr Tushman that Julian needed counselling from nightmares from looks at him. The audience gasped. His parents’ prejudice showed me Julian has little hope of embracing people who look different. Their prejudice attitude also had the old adage of putting the onus back on those of us with facial difference and disability to conform and change and harden up. Luckily Mr Tushman stood firm on the school’s anti bullying policy.
Interestingly, when Auggie fought off a pack of bullies at an interschool camp, one of his regular bullies, Amos changed his views about Auggie. I felt he got off very easily – with no apology. It took Auggie being violent to be accepted by Amos.
I also thought that just as Auggie didn’t want to be pitied, he didn’t want to actively inspire (there was a comment about ordinary-ness at the end of the film that made me think this, but I can’t recall what it was, sorry. He wanted to lead an ordinary life, and he wanted acceptance and inclusion. Which is what most of us with facial difference and disability want, isn’t it? And he’s a good role model, with or without a facial difference, because he models exemplary behaviour.
Auggie definitely demonstrated that it can take courage to endure the micro-aggressions and bullying that comes with having a facial difference. I feel that I have to steel myself before public encounters most days, and so do my friends.
As Auggie showed, the fear other people – especially kids – can have about our disabilities and facial differences can mean we spend a lot of time avoiding eye contact with people. It takes courage – even as an adult – to let people see us up close, not necessarily in a vulnerable state but eating (Auggie was uncomfortable and it took Jack to be silly for him to drop his guard a little) and holding hands, for example. It can take a lot of courage to engage. Before I saw the film, I was talking to a friend with a chronic illness and hand difference, who proudly told me that she showed some little girls her hands. Rachel said to me:
“So I’ve been a bit stressed out because my friends are having so many kids and I don’t usually engage with kids because it’s so awkward, their parents don’t know what to say. If I’m really tired I’ve been known to hiss at kids because I don’t have the time to be their first point of education – I’m tired. But I went to a cat cafe and the kids were really young and really wanted to know. I started talking to them and their mum was like ‘leave the poor lady alone’ and I said ‘actually this is really good for me’ so they kept asking what was wrong and I asked if they wanted touch my hands and that I was born that way.
I really felt that day like engaging and being a positive disabled person for kids to engage with.
I hope to do it more but sometimes I’m too anxious or tired. I think the timing was really good.
You have taught me so much about being a positive role model without the pity party 🙂🙂🙂🙂”
I think that Rachel’s experience shows that there’s still a long way to go with acceptance of people like us, and also how we sometimes have to build up the courage to face the world. Talking to kids is hard, even as an adult. And most of us can’t wear an astronaut helmet for protection, we have to learn ways to communicate on our own terms and develop resilience against all the ableism and bullying that comes our way. So looking to others who experience similar can help, being inspired (not in an objectification way of course) even. I think we with facial differences and disability are allowed to be inspired Auggie Pulman and real life people who go through similar to us. Finding that community is incredibly important.
Wonder isn’t a film filled with inspiration porn and solely using a boy with a facial difference as an object of tragedy and kindness. It’s a lesson on bullying – both how it manifests and harms – and also that people with facial differences just want to be treated like ordinary people. It’s also about friendship and integrity. I identified with so much of the story and at times, saw myself in Auggie (and my parents in his). I hope it encourages more people with facial differences to tell our stories, and that filmmakers and publishers will invite us into the mainstream to proudly complement Wonder.
What did you think of the film?
Did this post help you or make you think? Will you use it in the classroom or workplace?