Director Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder” – this holiday season’s feel-good movie – unfolds the plight of August, a precocious, witty and bullied middle schooler with a congenital facial deformity. This exceptional movie is based on R.J. Palacio’s well-crafted 2012 novel by the same name.
Chbosky and Palacio bring us memorable characters and a timeless story that should make “Wonder” a holiday classic. And they did their homework when it comes to what really ends bullying.
Bullying is the leading form of child abuse in the nation. “Wonder” shows us the predatory and entitled mindset that motivates many adolescent bullies – the same mindset and soul sickness that fuels adult sexual harassers.
August, like millions of real-life targets of bullying today, cannot escape bullying on his own, since he is socially and physically underpowered. He needs what a 10-year, landmark study by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed is necessary: positive peer pressure.
That means that August needs classmates with good hearts, strong values and a courageous form of kindness to stand up for him. They eventually do, which liberates August and makes his liberators stronger as well.
As August says toward the conclusion of the novel: “And now that they’d protected me, I was different to them. It was like I was one of them. They all called me ‘little dude’ now – even the jocks.”
Yet unlike many targets who are marginalized by their peers (and some teachers), “Auggie” is exceptionally fortunate. He’s enveloped by supreme love, wisdom, empathy and humor. These are blessings that are denied for many real-life targets.
Up to 70 percent of the victims of bullying never tell anyone, suffering in brutal silence. People like Michael Goodman, who has the same deformity and whose story went viral, after sharing how he attempted suicide twice as a senior in high school. Even now, as an adult pediatrician, Dr. Goodman has had parents refuse to let him treat their children due to his deformity.
Julian, Auggie’s cruel antagonist, like many real-life serial bullies is beset by cupiditas, or “sin of the wolf.” This is where others are only valuable in as much as they can be consumed, exploited and bartered.
With sexual harassers, cupiditas is achieved through power, domination and objectification, which feed the harasser’s ego and hubris. This sin, for which Dante reserved the lowest level of hell in “Inferno,” reveals itself in a similar way through adolescent bullying.
Julian tries and succeeds in turning Auggie into a punch line and a running joke in order to gain popularity. Interestingly, a UCLA study asked middle schoolers in more than 1,000 schools to list both the bullies and most popular students. The lists were nearly identical.
Bullying, like sexual harassment, pays – until targets and bystanders find their voice and courage to push back. We’re well past-time to start naming names of bullies as well (#iwasbullied).
Julian gives us an unvarnished view into the dark mind of a serial bully. He’s mean, accusatory and defamatory, and we eventually learn where he gets his predatory entitlement: his arrogant, disdainful and entitled mother. She is similar to another cinematic character, Simon (Jason Bateman) in “The Gift,” another movie that doesn’t traffic in the many self-soothing myths about bullying, such as that bullies come from abusive homes. That myth is perpetuated in the film “Sing Street.”
Many tears, like mine, have been shed while reading and watching “Wonder,” a gift to our sincere but still disjointed anti-bullying movement in America. But tears without action are wasted sentiment. They are more about our own pain from witnessing torment and injustice than about the wellbeing of the tens of millions of targets of serial bullying each year.
Let’s employ this movie to inspire our children to be more like Jack, Summer and other heroes who save Auggie.
Let’s inspire more real-life, protective fifth-graders like Jemalle Williams, who recently saw his autistic classmate bullied for chewing on pencils in class. Jemalle chewed on his own pencil in solidarity, and within days nearly his entire class joined him.
With his mother’s help, Jemalle wrote a book about his experience called, “Different Yet Alike.” Proceeds will fund bullying prevention in his school.
Let’s redeem our tears in 2018 by creating our own wonder born from courageous expressions of kindness.