Wonder: a personal response

dadtor-e1512334363740*warning – some spoilers*

When I first saw the transformation of actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman (Auggie), the ten-year-old boy with a craniofacial condition in Wonder, I was shocked.

Shocked at how much his little face reminded me of myself as a child growing up with a similar condition.

Shocked, too, at how close to home the emotional truths rang throughout the book and film; from navigating school and other children to the shifting family dynamics that come when one child requires extraordinary amounts of support.

Like Auggie, I was lucky enough to have a close and supportive family growing up. The Pullmans even have a dog called Daisy, on hand for cuddles every time Auggie comes home from hospital. My “Daisy” was a beautiful golden retriever, Maisie, who we had for 15 years and was a constant companion throughout the years of medical treatment.

I was also impressed by the good practice shown by Auggie’s teachers. On Auggie’s first day, his class teacher Mr Brown encourages him to speak up so that others can get to know him. He later deftly deflects the unwanted attentions of an awkward school photographer, and reminds Auggie when he’s upset that he doesn’t have to struggle alone. When bullying arises, Mr Brown takes evidence to the headmaster (a twinkly Mandy Patinkin), who takes it up with the bully and their parents in a way that shows zero tolerance.

I didn’t always experience this level of support at school, but the best relationships I had with was with teachers who got to know me, and I remember them with great affection. The most upsetting treatment came from teachers who never even taught me, but assumed I was a difficult child and then said as much to my peers.

The White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends” provides a touching, uplifting soundtrack to the theme of friendship that for me makes the film so joyful. A semi-comedic moment comes from Julia Roberts as Auggie’s anxious mother, when she’s asked by Auggie at the school gate if the friend he’s made can come home to play. “I’ve got to be cool,” she mutters to herself as they walk ahead, quietly stunned that her previously lonely child has found a gregarious mate.

I understood her reaction. As a devoted parent, she’s spent years watching her child be rejected and excluded, and her heart breaks for him every time. She feels powerless to help him as she can’t control other people’s behaviour. Her expectations for his social life are so low that all she wants is for other children to “be kind” to him. “Please, make them be nice to him,” she whispers in her husband’s ear as they watch Auggie walk into school on his first day.

This message has been rolled out across the campaign surrounding the film – a key related hashtag is #ChooseKind, echoed in Mr Brown’s lessons. Of course, we all benefit from treating each other with kindness, and it’s portrayed here as the antidote to bullying or ostracising someone. And yet, I find myself having some reservations with the message in this particular context.

Because I couldn’t help but notice that Auggie doesn’t especially want people to be “kind” to him; at least no more than anyone else does. He wants friends, just as I did. Friendship is a two-way street; one that can sometimes be messy and shouty and raw – and for children particularly, there can be unkind moments on each side. It’s part of growing up. When Summer goes to join him at the lunch table, Auggie assumes she’s simply being nice because the headmaster asked her to be. He accuses her of this quite angrily (having been hurt by overhearing another child say as much), and she denies it just as angrily as it isn’t true. “So why are you here?” August asks. “I want nice friends for a change,” Summer shrugs, and before you know it they’ve founded their own seasonal name club.

Possibly my favourite performance (and there were a lot to choose from, including Owen Wilson on form as Auggie’s hilarious, loving dad) was from Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, one of Auggie’s classmates. It’s not all plain sailing, but the two ultimately develop a sincere friendship, with Jack benefiting as much from Auggie’s company as Auggie does from his. Because not only is Auggie a Star Wars fanatic and a fellow gamer with a cracking sense of humour, he also helps pull Jack’s grades up, through licit and illicit means – who doesn’t want a friend like that?

My takeaway from Wonder isn’t just that it’s better to be kind, but that accepting people as they are brings its own very real rewards, and allows everyone to flourish. This is an important film – moving and funny by turn – that tackles the stigma of disfigurement with empathy. I for one am delighted it’s received the Hollywood treatment it deserves.

Changing Faces supports adults, children and families living with disfigurement. Text WOND37 £5 to 70070 if you’d like to make a donation.