Watch out Elf. There’s a new movie in contention for the title of the best feel-good holiday movie. Wonder, based on the best selling novel by RJ Palacio, is an inspiring tale of the bonds of friendship, overcoming bullying, and kids’ deep down desire just to fit in.
The novel has won many awards, which by itself is enough to recommend this movie. Wonder spent time on The New York Times Bestseller list, won the 2014 Maine Student Book Award, the 2015 Mark Twain Award, as well as state children’s book awards in Hawaii, Vermont, and Illinois. It’s evident that the story is brilliant.
Wonder tells the story of Auggie Pullman (played by Jacob Tremblay who made his acting debut in Room), a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome. His parents, Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, and Nate, played by Owen Wilson, have homeschooled Auggie his entire elementary school years in their comfortable Brooklyn brownstone. They decide to send him to middle school at the age of 10. They base their decision on the fact that they are unable to shield him from the world any longer.
Treacher Collins Syndrome is a genetic disorder which presents with deformities of the face including the eyes, ears, cheekbones, and chin. There are varying degrees to which each person is affected by the syndrome, and while doctors can perform corrective surgeries at defined developmental stages, there is no cure. There are many concerns for TCS sufferers, including hearing loss, issues with breathing and eating, and many associated psychiatric symptoms including body image disorders, social phobia anxiety, and depression. Those affected tend to have average intelligence. However, that usually doesn’t matter to kids in middle school. Patients are often subjected to bullying and discrimination when they’re young, much like Auggie experienced.
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Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are the kind of parents we all wish we had, or that we wish we were. They’re incredibly loving, sensitive parents who work together, mostly, to make sure their son has the best life possible. There’s the occasional spat of course, but without those, the relationship wouldn’t be believable. They raised Auggie to stand up for himself as well, which is good because the kids he meets at his new school are not going to make that easy.
Auggie’s first day is plagued with bullies, peer pressure, and nicknames designed to make him feel lower than low. The kids start calling him “Barf Hideous,” leading him to cut off the small braid that is his one nod to fashion. Peer pressure is no joke, and this film does an excellent job of showing it. Auggie makes friends with a boy named Jack and thinks things are going well until Halloween rolls around and Auggie walks around in a Ghostface mask. He’s completely unrecognizable, and ends up overhearing Jack telling others that he’s “only pretending to be friends with Auggie.” The feelings of betrayal run deep, and Auggie pulls away from Jack and wants to quit the private school. His older sister, Via, talks him out of it. When Jack learns that Auggie overheard him bragging about pretending, it makes him feel bad enough that he starts to stand up for Auggie to the other kids in school. That includes punching one of the boys right in the face when he hears him call Auggie a freak. Jack apologizes, and the two become thicker than thieves. Their relationship becomes one of the major plot points in the movie.
Via herself is one of the most complex members of the family. Due to his condition, Auggie’s needs have always come first, frequently pushing Via to the background. She takes over the narration of the story, and we learn that Via is easily the most complicated character in the film. The dynamic between the four family members, with its focus on Auggie’s needs, has left Via feeling remarkably compassionate, but also neglected and sad. We see her telling her soon-to-be-boyfriend that she’s an only child, partly to distance herself from her family and all its requirements, but also to protect them from the judgment of others.
The director of the movie is Stephen Chbosky, the man behind The Perks of Being a Wallflower and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. Chbosky wields an incredibly deft hand when it comes to coming-of-age movies. He handles the ups and downs of teenage life with staggering sensitivity. This film could have quickly gone down the path of many before it and become overly sappy, sentimental and pander to our heartstrings. However, Chbosky manages to keep this movie on the side of intelligent, emotional, and intimate, more like an independent movie than the big blockbuster it is.
The cast was chosen brilliantly as well. Julia Roberts lets out her signature laugh at least once in the movie, and her infectious grin and empathetic nature shine through in almost every scene. Owen Wilson plays the perfect, loving dad, who works in a hip enough place that he gets to go to work in a suit and sneakers. He unleashes his signature drawl throughout, teaching Auggie about life’s issues. They do all the things that we expect from them on the big screen.
So why will this movie knock Elf, the current title holder for the best holiday movie, off its pedestal? It may not, but Wonder has the same kind of heartwarming charm that Elf has. Wonder also teaches kids about peer pressure, bullying, and the fact that acceptance of people who may look or be a little different is the only way to establish world peace. While there are genuinely funny moments throughout Wonder (how could there not be with that cast?), Elf wins that round on the sheer force of Will Farrel’s brand of silly. It’s unlikely that Wonder will win this bout. Elf will remain the front-runner for the best family Christmas movie, but Wonder is a feel-good coming of age story that will have you reaching for the tissues more than once.
No matter whether you choose Elf to be your champion of the holiday movie battle or Wonder wins you over; this is entirely a must-see movie for you and your family. Don’t forget the tissues!