“No one’s ordinary. Everyone deserves a standing ovation at least once in their lives.”
This is one of my favorite lines from “Wonder.” When you see it spoken in context you’ll see that it’s not talking about the shallow, self-obsessed, entitled “snowflake” mentality that is often criticized in today’s culture.
No, in the context of the film, the line above is about having an empathetic imagination for the complex lives and layers of others around you. It’s about bearing the burdens of others with empathy, forgiving them for their faults, looking deeper into who they are, and then offering them grace.
More on that line from the film in a moment.
It’s not often that one of the best family movies ever made, or any family movie not to mention a good one, comes to the big screen. It’s been mostly superheroes, reboots and horror movies that have gotten the attention and big studio budgets in recent years. To someone old enough to remember with vivid clarity the glut of classic family movies that were made by multiple major studios often (not just Disney) in the late eighties and most of the nineties, “Wonder” is a welcome delight and a nod to those happier times for families.
The sad part is that it will likely be overshadowed by an allegedly not-that-great superhero movie. Even if “Wonder” was not coming out at the same time as Justice League, things are different these days. I’ve noticed a distinct change in culture this year.
Less people are going to the movie theaters.
So many categories of media exist now, each with long buffet lines of genres within each category, and within each genre are endless waves of new releases spread across, film, music, books and apps on a weekly basis—so numerous and varied that it becomes harder and harder to notice and remember much of anything for very long. Every release, big and small, zips by our little mobile screens and is half-remembered by the end of the week and forgotten by the end of the month as new waves of shiny releases wash up on the beach again.
It’s depressing for people who make and sell media, yes, but it’s the new challenge of our over-saturated, hyper-distracted society.
So how does “Wonder” fit in to this? If “Wonder” came out in, say, 1994, when things were less cluttered and there were far fewer sources of media and fewer releases to pay attention to, when almost EVERY major motion picture release was a genuinely big cultural event (if the movie was good), in that environment “Wonder” would have immediately become a classic of the ‘90s alongside “Forrest Gump,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Toy Story,” “Hook,” “Lion King,” etc etc.
Here’s my take on why this PG movie is already an instant classic in my book and would make a great night out at the movies with the fam:
- Empathy. This movie digs deep in this area, deeper than most family films. It’s not content with just keeping a spotlight on one character the whole time and force-fitting everyone else into some kind of meaningful shape around the center. Nope. This film takes a hard look at what makes multiple characters tick, and it does so with compelling storytelling and authenticity that genuinely moves you. This leads to the next point.
- Chaptered storylines devoted to different characters. The film is divided into little chapters with headings bearing the name of one of the characters, and that chapter spends all of its time telling you about the background behind all of that character’s surface actions and words, good or bad. It’s a sincere, skillfully done character study, and it makes “Wonder” a surprisingly complex, deep film for a family movie.
- Unpredictable. The two points above give the storytellers plenty of room to surprise you. Granted, it’s based on a novel, so if you’ve read the book nothing will surprise you, but I had not read it and I found the film refreshing. I’ve seen multitudes of family films and I can usually spot a plot twist from a mile away. “Wonder” kept you a little off balance compared to other films. This added to the emotional punch of the film’s most important points.
- Great acting, writing and directing and all the other -ings. I mean, come on, Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts in the same movie? That alone makes this movie worth it if you’re a fan of their acting. But the script plays to the strengths of both actors, and they (and all the adult actors) really provide a wonderful supporting strength to the real stars of the film: the kids (and teenagers). Absolutely superb performances by all the child actors. I was floored and moved to tears often–and not just by Jacob Tremblay who plays Auggie, but also Noah Jupe who plays Jack, Izabela Vidovic who plays Via, and Bryce Gheisar who plays the bully when we eventually see what makes his character tick.
- Content with clean, wholesome drama without losing its effectiveness. The movie doesn’t feel the need to throw “edgy” material or any political-cultural topics that are divisive to make it meaningful. “Wonder” is “rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language.” It keeps it clean and wholesome without trying to sneak anything into a PG rating that doesn’t really belong. It’s a genuinely family-friendly film.
What’s great about this film is how contagious its empathy is. It makes you want to be a better listener and to not just write people off. And it delivers that message in a way that kids will understand deep in their hearts: an instructive, edifying film for everyone in the family.