Featuring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, the ‘Wonder’ movie based on R.J. Palacio’s best-selling book could shift our daily interactions.
“I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably much worse,” says 10-year-old August Pullman, the protagonist in the New York Times best-selling middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Auggie, the main character born with a severe facial deformity, tells his story, and then the perspective shifts to his classmates, sister and sister’s boyfriend. Exploring themes of belonging, empathy, differences, kindness and resilience, Wonder is spreading empathy like wildfire and will debut as the adapted Wonder movie on November 17.
The film, with Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson and Mandy Patinkin, was originally slated to release last April but did so well in test screenings that filmmakers pushed it to November for the increased holiday ticket sales.
Beyond predicted profit margins, however, the underlying story in Wonder appears to be connecting to the collective human spirit. What is it about 5th grader Auggie’s story that has people of all ages swarming book signings, outfitted in T-shirts donning quotes of kindness from the novel?
Is it Auggie’s sharp insights?
“Here’s what I think. The only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one sees me that way.”
Mental health therapist and inspirational speaker Sage Volkman says she read this quote over and over when she first saw it, noting how it is simply yet perfectly stated.
Volkman resonates at a deep level with Auggie’s experiences. She herself has severe scarring from third- and fourth-degree burns incurred at the age of five, covering 70% of her body, all the way to her bones. She understands what it’s like to be stared at in public and the importance of listening to our own reality. “My own set of values didn’t allow me to give up, and not being in public wasn’t an option. It became clearer when I realized the dialogue I had with myself was assertive and kind, because at the end of the day, it’s only the voice inside your head that decides your reality. My reality was I’m social, and being/looking different didn’t factor into my equation.”
August’s story takes place in the most public of childhood settings: school. Both the book and movie chronicle Auggie’s entry into the classroom after being homeschooled his whole life. “What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that.”
The level of vulnerability we feel as August meets classmates and teachers for the first time is probably what forever magnetizes us to his plight. The craving to fit in, especially at that age, hits a core human need high on Maslow’s list: the need to belong.
Volkman says that much of her work as a therapist surrounds the patient’s need to belong, sometimes even to themselves, which is something we do alongside the protagonist in Wonder. “Auggie becomes relatable not just for looking different, but people connect with the underpinning emotion. I guarantee everyone has felt like an outsider, misunderstood, wanting to belong and not. He also encompasses a real struggle, and real struggle sometimes isn’t always resolved; it’s a constant journey and a cultivation of the need to accept ourselves,” says Volkman.
Renowned social researcher Brené Brown dove into this concept in The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), defining belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.” She continues, “Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
Auggie starts out with a tremendous amount of self-acceptance and wit. “I know I’m weird-looking. Take a look. I don’t bite.” Yet he still struggles to belong.
Upon further research, Brown added to her previous definition of belonging in Braving the Wilderness (2017): “Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours. Belonging to ourselves means being called to stand alone, to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability and criticism.”
Braving the wilderness is exactly what August Pullman does throughout Wonder. Out of consideration for those who haven’t read the book, I won’t share spoilers. But I will say this: at several points in the story — and in one particularly jarring incident near the climax — Auggie could easily give up, tattle on some classmates and probably convince his parents to pull him out of school. And it’s in those crushing, lonely moments that the reader is thoroughly enmeshed, flooded by personal memories of ostracism.
As different as the details of our stories may be, we can all identify with vulnerable, scary moments when we’ve had to find our own resilient courage to move forward.
Psychotherapist Becky Andrews, founder of Resilient Solutions, says we all have innate strengths that help us bounce back after facing challenges. In her memoir, Look Up, Move Forward, she writes about cultivating her own resiliency through her loss of eyesight. She helps her clients cultivate their resilience through the following: articulating their feelings, self-care, making and keeping healthy reciprocal relationships, authenticity (being true to who they are as individuals), sense of humor, gratitude practice and finding meaning and purpose in life. “As we cultivate our resilience, our challenges actually can be a guiding force in our lives,” she says.
Auggie’s challenges start as barriers. He wishes he had “a normal face that no one ever noticed at all” and that he could “walk down the street without people seeing [him] and then doing that look-away thing.”
Yet he cultivates resilience by forging ahead despite his fears. He also leans on his sister, Via, who is protective yet gives him the “tough love” talk when he needs it most, telling him, “Now, unless you want to be treated like a baby the rest of your life, or like a kid with special needs, you just have to suck it up and go.”
He also has supportive parents who gently guide him with humor and stories, even though Auggie doesn’t like to admit their antics help. “I smiled even though I didn’t want to let them see me smile.”
While readers connect easily with Auggie’s words, Volkman says it’s through the words of Auggie’s friends and family that we as readers are able to normalize his differences. “I think that it’s actually the other perspectives that help normalize his deformity. I know I look different, but my friends and family — and even my (therapy) patients for that matter — all say, ‘I don’t see your scars; you are just Sage.’” Volkman adds that it’s helpful for readers to see the transformation that Auggie’s friends undergo, from being scared of his differences to seeing him as “just Auggie.”
But all these very personal interactions and transformations lead us to an important question about the overall impact of Wonder: Will our connection to Auggie translate to more authentic interactions in public when we meet a stranger with visible differences? Will that new kid who appears different, for example, be welcomed more readily by a group of students who’ve bonded with the characters in Wonder?
Or will Wonder be one of those books and movies we love celebrating but struggle to put into practice? Volkman says it depends whether we can overcome a culture of politeness. “If I’m being honest, I feel like our world has become too politically correct and not encouraging people to ask. I call it ‘accepting’ ignorance. People acknowledge and know social norms to be ‘polite,’ but there is nothing polite or enlightened about ignorance. We embrace difference, but we don’t question or ask about it. How can we have true empathy or compassion if we don’t know the person’s perspective? Everything is and does become a story. I love when parents tell their kids to come up and ask me, ‘What happened?’ When I talk to these kids, I become a person, not just this abnormality.”
Of course, there are rude ways to ask people about their differences, as we see in the book when an antagonistic character, Julian, asks, “So what’s the deal with your face? Were you in a fire or something?” In keeping with the message of the book, when approaching someone with a question, “Be kinder than necessary.” True kindness is not a fake nicety but an authentic attempt to truly connect. The character Charlotte, one of Auggie’s classmates who is a class leader and the quintessential “good student,” exemplifies this “nice from a distance” attitude. Charlotte contrasts with another character, Summer, who sits with Auggie at lunch and really gets to know him.
In her experience as both a therapist and someone with a visible disability, Andrews explains that authentic interactions take time. “I think it is easy to admire and feel inspired from afar. True connection takes work, courage and vulnerability from both in the relationship. If there is a difference, it can be taking it a step beyond to understand.” Andrews says this is what people are drawn to in Auggie’s character. “We connect and see him as a person and what we have in common, which can create that foundation and expand to other people we meet. It opens us to the possibility of other relationships with someone who might be different or have a situation we don’t understand.”
Based on Andrews’ and Volkman’s insights, our culture clearly has some growth to do, but Auggie’s story is a significant starting point. Volkman says that if the movie stays true to the book, it will be a helpful tool for schools and families to discuss how to treat and talk to people who are different. In fact, later this month Volkman will be speaking in her nephew’s 5th grade classroom, where the students recently finished reading Wonder.
“I think this book is a great platform to open and have discussion with kids about people with differences and how to act and respond. I think it also gives permission for them to make mistakes and be able to apologize and circle back, like Jack [one of the characters] did.” Volkman also says that, as with many cultural waves, the current craze may fizzle out after the initial hype. But for now, this week’s movie release continues to ignite the #choosekind campaign launched by Auggie fans everywhere.
So whether it’s a passing fad or a lasting revolution, let’s hope the words of beloved Mr. Tushman, Auggie’s school principal, reverberate through the crowd a while longer: “If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary — the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”