“Wonder” is coming to theaters in November. You can watch the trailer here. Chances are, if you have kids anywhere from eight to 18, you’ve already heard the premise, which is based on the best-selling novel by R. J. Palacio.
The tale is about a child named Auggie who was born with a genetic abnormality that caused facial deformities among other things. The story follows his first attempt, as a fifth grader, to attend a real school. School is tough for any kid, but middle school might just be the worst, especially for one who looks different from his peers.
The book changed lives. It encouraged kids and adults alike to peek into the world of special needs and consider that humanity there is much the same as anywhere else. This story gave millions an Auggie-eye view on life, and the movie may do just as much, if not more, to bring awareness to what life looks like for families with kids with disabilities.
It was a best-seller because it spun out a story that anyone could respond to: the need to feel connected and to know that you belong.
And yet, I have mixed feelings. As a mom to a son with cerebral palsy and an off-the-map genetic disorder, I can foresee potential pitfalls when Hollywood takes hold of a story like this. I read the book. I see where things might go.
Special needs is a complex entity, a vast network of exposed nerves that must be treated with care. Please, let this story be treated with care.
The things that made the narrative shine are Auggie’s wit and the voices of his friends. They are innocent, even in their unkindness to each other – something that comes out more clearly in Palacio’s follow-up novel, “Auggie and Me”. It is the parents’ cruelty, the bullying by the grownups, that will make your heart seize.
I hope they do it justice. I hope they show Auggie for all he’s worth and do not downplay what happens when adults hold narrow views of those who look different from them. I hope Julia Roberts can carry the complexities of mothering both a child with special needs and a teenage girl. (I will go watch “Steel Magnolias” and “Erin Brockovich” and let myself be reassured.)
I hope that this movie does not sensationalize special needs. I hope my son does not become the new pet project at school because special needs is “trending up.” I also hope this film does not narrow the field of focus too much.
There are kids who look different, like Auggie, and are brilliant and funny like him, too. But there are also kids who look just like everybody else who struggle with learning delays, speech delays, and global developmental delays and require just as much sensitivity from the world around them.
Ultimately, this movie can do a great deal of good. It can turn the light on in the dark corner of the room where children with special needs should not have to bide their time. It can activate that sympathy and empathy that parents diligently strive to promote in themselves and their children. It can put those good vibes to work.
“Wonder” is ultimately a success story and a reminder to those who do not live in the special needs world that it does exist. It is also a reminder to those of us who do live here that we have not been forgotten. The story, if handled well, will be a reminder for all of us to look on every part of humanity with wonder.