Maybe if we knew what everyone was thinking we’d know they’re not so ordinary and we all deserve a standing ovation once in our lives. – Auggie
Wonder is a one of those rare, truly-good-for-the-whole-family movies. Not only is it clean and fun and touching, it’s also inspiring and convicting. One of those movies that will encourage you to grow as a person. If some movies are like eating dessert, they taste good but offer no real nutritional value for your soul, and others are like eating vegetables, they may be good and healthy for your soul but aren’t quite as delicious going down…this one is like eating a fabulous piece of cake, and then finding out it’s actually chock-full of vegetables and protein and things that will benefit your soul. That’s a rare find! And on top of that, for those of us literary types, it’s actually a brilliantly-crafted, well-written story.
It’s the story of Auggie Pullman, a young boy whose birth defects accounted for countless surgeries and much physical deformity in his face. Previously homeschooled, he is forced to finally brave public school as he enters the fifth-grade (as if middle school isn’t hard enough on any kid!). He suffers betrayal and meanness and gossip—all amplified by both his physical deformities and his insecurities. And yet, as his sister Via points out, “School sucks and people change. So, if you want to be a normal kid, then those are the rules,” indicating that his experiences in Jr. High aren’t about him being different, they are actually just a part of his being normal—a thing he longs for. Her solution for this, besides simply accepting these things as a normal course of life? Embrace family. “So… we are each other’s best friends,” she says.
This is part of the movie’s genius. We see how unkind the world is to Auggie, and yet, his experience, though heightened, is still very normal. It puts things in perspective. It shows us how extraordinary and yet how normal we ALL are, and our experiences ALL are. This is the point Auggie comes to at the end of the movie as he not only survived fifth-grade, but thrived in it. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle and if you really want to see who people are, all you have to do is look,” he says. “Maybe if we knew what everyone was thinking we’d know they’re not so ordinary and we all deserve a standing ovation once in our lives.” It’s almost oxymoronic to say that everyone is extraordinary, because extraordinary sort of precludes the possibility of everyone—it’s extra, beyond, not normal. And yet, we can all be extraordinary, not normal, in different ways. We are heroic as we fight our own unique battles. Everyone fights them, which makes it common, but the battles themselves are unique, which makes us extraordinary.
This is another part of the movie’s genius—and I dare say the most significant: it doesn’t just showcase Auggie’s struggles (and his greatness); it shares several character’s private battles (and their greatness). It’s brilliant. It may revolve around Auggie’s story, but it doesn’t only tell Auggie’s story. As the earth rotates around the sun, different parts of the earth are highlighted, exposed, displayed for all to see. It’s a metaphor Via uses to describe her family— “Auggie is the sun. My mom and dad and me are the planets orbiting the sun.” Her point is that everything in her family is always all about Auggie. (And this is hurtful to her as she never feels like she is the center of her parent’s attention.) What she misses, however, is that as her family, and the story as a whole, rotates around him, the light of Auggie and his struggles is what illuminates her and the other people in the story. Her beautiful character is revealed by him.
It is how the story functions. He is the center, but we don’t only get his point of view. As the story rotates through its orbit, various characters are highlighted and we get to see and hear things from their point of view. Yes, it is all in the light of Auggie, but that’s because he is the light that is highlighting their struggle. We see how Via struggles because she thinks her family cannot handle one more thing on their plate. She feels like an only child, abandoned by her parents, and yet—she fully understands that Auggie needs them. Via’s best friend is jealous of Via’s loving family. Auggie’s friend Jack Will struggles with wanting to be friends with Auggie, but also wanting to be cool with the “cool kids”. And so it goes. Everyone is fighting their own difficult battle. They make mistakes. They do cruel things even, and yet, when their story is illuminated, we see why and we are moved with compassion. It makes our rejoicing over their course corrections later even greater.
The writers could have accomplished this in other ways, I’m sure, but the beauty of this movie is that both the message and the means of learning that message are instructive. They don’t simply point out that everyone has their own struggles. They don’t just tell us to be compassionate and forgiving towards others. Instead they go beyond the message and give us a method to get there. As they take time in the story away from Auggie’s journey to hear what’s going on with everyone else, they are teaching us by example to be less self-centered. They are teaching us to pause and watch and listen to those around us. They are teaching us that everyone has their own perspective, their own way that they are being affected by your collective experience. You may be going through the same circumstances, but you will experience them differently, be affected by them uniquely.
Most stories have a third-person point of view (often an omniscient narrator). Many have a first-person point of view (like the way you see your life—it’s through one person’s perspective). Not a lot of stories have a multiple first-person point of view (Hoodwinked is another example). Wonder chose the latter because it isn’t just telling Auggie’s story; it’s telling us that every person’s story is worth telling and worth a standing ovation at some point.
Near the story’s end, Via is in a play and her monologue gives insight into another nugget we are supposed to take away from the story. She laments, “All that was going on and we never noticed??? … Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you.” There is so much going on in the world around us and in people’s lives all around us…and we never notice. When we do have a moment of clarity and insight, when we do see the heroic struggles within each other, when we do see the beautiful tapestry God is creating, we are compelled to say with Via, “It’s too wonderful for anyone to realize.”
And then the story circles back to its center, to Auggie—the boy whose deformities and struggles and beautiful wit and character and brilliance and kindness shone a light on all those around him, highlighting and bringing clarity to their own stories. At his fifth-grade graduation his principal, Mr. Tushman, quoted Henry Ward Beecher and said, “Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” I’m here to award the Henry Ward Beecher award to the student whose great strength has carried up the most hearts.” And he awarded it to Auggie.
Auggie’s story wasn’t just about himself. He had the wonderful ability to see other people, to see things from their perspective and put himself in their shoes. He said, “If Chewbacca went to school here, I’d probably stare, too. [Aside to Chewy, imagining him there:] Hey, I’m sorry if my staring made you uncomfortable.” This is how he is able to forgive meanness in others—he imagines being in their shoes. Mr. Tushman told the school bully, “Auggie can’t change the way he looks, but maybe we can change the way we see.” And at graduation, he said that Auggie “carried up the most hearts”—Auggie did that by changing the way people saw, and that started with changing the way HE saw.
The messages in this movie apply to everyone—it’s about being the best sort of human imaginable. I haven’t brought Christianity into the article yet, but it’s there. Jesus came to teach us all how to be the best sort of human imaginable. It’s just that sometimes, we’ve made Christianity about something other than being fully and best human. We’ve made it about rules and religion and snobbery. But with Auggie, there’s nothing snobbish…and he is very much like Christ. He forgives his enemies and is kind to those who persecute him. He lifts up those around him and makes them better people… I could go on, but isn’t that exactly who Christ was? Someone who carried up the most hearts by the attraction of his own? God may not be mentioned in the movie, but there are books in the Bible where He isn’t mentioned either. Just because His name isn’t spoken, doesn’t mean He isn’t still throughout the story. He is all in it for those who care to look for Him.
Questions for Discussion:
- How did hearing other people’s stories and points of view change your perspective of them in the movie? Would it change things if you could do this in your own life—learn to see other people’s points of view? How could you do that?
- In what ways did Auggie “carry up the most hearts”?
- In what ways is Auggie like Jesus?
- What does it mean that, “Maybe if we knew what everyone was thinking we’d know they’re not so ordinary and we all deserve a standing ovation once in our lives”?