March 10th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Family home in cities soaring further out of reach

EDITORIAL Australia: sleepwalking towards the precipice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Population debate needs development debate

NATIONAL AFFAIRS We need a development bank and a higher population

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Russians were spoilers: U.S. election rap sheet

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bob Santamaria and free trade agreements

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions are far cry from protection of religious freedom

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China v Professor Brady: intimidation or coincidence?

POLITICS AND SOCIETY Defending biological man and woman from transgenderism

SOUTH AUSTRALIA Swing to minor parties expected in SA poll

ASIA Burma: ignored and misunderstood

HISTORY The improbability of progress

MUSIC Playing the pitch: being in tune is a sometime thing

CINEMA Wonder: Our deeds are our monuments

BOOK REVIEW Exploring our own recent archives

BOOK REVIEW Rising in a society fractured at heart

BOOK REVIEW A dubious thesis but deserves a read

NEWS Pat Byrne elected new NCC president

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals return for second term in Hobart

Books promotion page

Wonder: Our deeds are our monuments

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, March 10, 2018

A movie about the struggles of someone who is different can easily become sentimental or simplistic, bleak or saccharine. Or it can be more profound, resonating beyond its immediate story. Such is the case with Wonder, the 2017 film about a young boy with a craniofacial condition going to school for the first time and the adventures he has there.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is, in most ways, an ordinary boy. He likes Star Wars and Xbox and Minecraft and dreams about being in outer space. But Auggie is unique. He has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic mutation that makes him look very different from any other kids. So far, he has been homeschooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), and is loved dearly by his father Nate (Owen Wilson) and big sister Olivia “Via” (Izabela Vidovic). As he’s getting older, his parents decide it’s time for him to start regular school and to have as ordinary a life as he can.

They send him to Beecher Prep, run by the bearded and bow-tied Principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) – a man who does not take himself too seriously but takes the welfare of his students very seriously. Auggie’s family is worried for him, but they know he’s a bright kid with a love for science, and that, at least, will be somewhere he’ll excel. His time at school is difficult at first, but as the other kids get to know him they realise how cool and decent he is. This doesn’t stop him from being bullied and ostracised – led by the two-faced rich kid Julian (Bryce Gheisar) – but he slowly makes friends, especially with Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis), and shines at his studies.

Via is also starting at a new school. She’s now in high school and facing challenges of her own. Her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), has come back from summer camp with pink streaks in her hair and no longer seems to want anything to do with her.

Via loves her brother, but his health difficulties mean he takes up all her parents time and attention, something she feels keenly but is ashamed of feeling. She begins to fashion her own life after joining the theatre society, where she makes a new friend in Justin (Nadji Jeter) a good bloke and self-professed “theatre nerd”.

One of the things that makes Wonder so powerful and distinctive is that, while Auggie may be the centre of the film, his is not the only story told. Every character is given their own perspective, even Julian. We learn why they are the way they are and can empathise with them. We see how the small decisions they make impact not only their own lives but those around them. There are no villains in this film, only the misguided and the mistaken.

This could lead to criticism that the film is unrealistic, that “real life” is harder and nastier than is shown, especially because the Pullmans’ situation is so much better than that of most people. It is true that the Pullmans are definitely better off than many, but that is just a detail. What really makes them better off is the self-giving love they have for each other. And as for the nastiness of life, Wonder believes strongly in the fundamental decency of humanity, even if individual humans are cruel.

Central to the film’s theme is an idea from a tradition at least as old as Aristotle – that we are what we do, and that our character is the result of the choices we make and the actions we take. This is expressed through the precepts of Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr Browne (Daveed Diggs): “Your deeds are your monuments”; “Who is it I aspire to be?”

This tradition can sometimes be seen as encouraging some sort of Prome­thean self-mastery and self-sufficiency, that any problems or failings we have are entirely our own fault – but to do so would be a mistake. As much as we are the result of our actions, we are still influenced by many things outside of our control, and it can be hard to challenge those influences.

Auggie embodies this. He could be, and at times is, self-indulgent, but he has made a conscious decision to be better, a decision that encourages others to also be better. Here Mr Browne’s other key precept comes in: choose kind over being right, not because error doesn’t matter, but because being kind means living life right, and that matters more than winning an argument.

At the end of the film Auggie realises why this is so crucial, because everyone is fighting a hard battle – one that means we all deserve a standing ovation.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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