Wonder: a movie critique

I knew I would eventually watch it but something told me from the start that I wouldn’t like it. Details like the name of the film, the trailers, and general tone of it, let me know that this was a movie I would struggle to watch and I would not be comfortable with how the material would be presented. And bingo, I was correct.

Originally a fictional novel (I haven’t read) by someone who doesn’t have direct experience with the topic, Wonder is a film about a boy born with Treacher Collin’s syndrome. It is a craniofacial deformity that affects the middle part of the facial bones, noticeably the eyes and cheek bones and/or more.  The author of the book met a boy with the syndrome and decided to write an inspirational teen novel.

Similarly, I was born with a deformity that is often compared to Treacher’s except it affects one side of the face causing a baby to be born with a lack skeletal structure on one side rather than the middle of the face, affecting the ear, cheek, and jaw of the side.

So, you can imagine that my watching this movie came with some personal baggage to deal with.

There’s no specific critique I have about it as a film. I actually found it quite boring and stale. It follows typical tropes of teen movies and has no surprising twists. It is your typical feel good inspirational movie. And that is the problem.

Activist Stella Young, who passed away in 2012, coined the term “Inspirational Porn”. After I watched the movie, I googled it and learned the term  immediately identifying what I felt having seen the movie.

The movie quickly describes what young Auggie, the main character, had to go through medically at that point of his life. He is going to school for the first time and will experience what confronting other kids feels like. It then goes into some back stories of some of the other characters. The sister’s role and her point of view made sense to me. It was the only honest part I found as she finds herself struggling to find her own place in the world while her brother has been generally the center of it. But the general gist of the movie is a small moment in the main character’s life in dealing with others as they perceive him.

For those of us that grew up with a deformity, or disability, the way we move about the world takes two forms. One, how you perceive yourself and second, how others treat you as they perceive you. But how we deal with how others perceive us is the important part. It is complex and difficult. One aspect of that is an uncomfortable reality that only the affected, and maybe some around them, understand.

When some of us talk about our struggles with having these deformities, our main goal is not to create sympathy around us, but rather to show that struggle and pain is real and faking otherwise is dishonest.

We did not choose to have these things happen to us. We did not choose to have to deal with surgery, bullying, name calling or the inevitable stares. We are not exceptional because biology has flaws. We, like everybody else, just want to be exceptional by who we are, not what we are.

At the end of the movie, Auggie receives an award for having affected other kids behaviour. Not necessarily for saying something or doing anything but simply for having a face that makes others question their own behaviour. It ends up being a reflection about how people without deformities should treat those with them.

This, to me and others, comes off as society’s own pat on the back for being able to be “good” people for treating those different from them with respect. It’s actually quite insulting. As Young put it, “I am not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

While I could easily say,  “It’s just a nice little story”, these depictions of what I’ve been through are not common in film. When the opportunity to tell a story that I actually can relate to is cut up and portrayed like a nice inspirational story for others, it’s difficult to not be offended when the reality of the situation is much more painful and complicated. It’s difficult to give society a pat on the back for it’s good behaviour when it is us that are left to deal with the struggle and built up baggage that comes with having our faces and bodies.

Young’s “Inspirational Porn” makes a point to say that putting these emotional responses upon those that are different from the norm sets a sort of standard to live up to. Standards I myself struggled with. It’s a nice story when your 9 and all you want is to be accepted. You’re given labels like “strong” and “special”. We’re given character traits which we didn’t work for but were bestowed upon us simply for having to deal with something others hadn’t to. But the things is, life doesn’t end at the end credits. It continues.

What happens after the movie is over? When you start dating, go to job interviews; have to deal with the normal stuff everyone else deals with on top of this other thing that doesn’t go away. I myself only began to seriously struggle with dealing with what I’d been through when I was starting college. And none of it is fit for a feel-good teen movie. That is the reality.

Living with a deformity is not just one stage of life that you overcome and move on from. It is like living with a pebble in your shoe. You get used to it but it’s still poking at you. Sometimes great things happen and you forget it’s there and sometimes it’s all you think about. The pain, the struggle, and the knowing that the pebble is not coming out. We are not society’s token inspirational friend. We are not like this so society can decide to be good. We are not like this so society can take our stories, patch them up, and sell them as feel-good anecdotes for a rainy day. We simply are like this and all we ask for is that society not use us as a way of making itself feel better for accepting us. It comes off as, “I’m so lucky I’m not them but I’m so good for accepting them.” Again, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

Our Face: My Parents and Me

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Since my last post, I decided I wanted to start bringing in a more personal side of myself to this blog. Since that decision, I have had a hard time deciding how to do it. It involves somewhat unique experiences that have permeated so many areas of my life that choosing where or how to start has been overwhelming. But I have to start somewhere so I’ll start with the toughest part. I’ll begin with the people that made me, my parents. The reason I want to talk publicly about them is because we all have complex relationships with our parents, and that’s okay. Mine has been somewhat unique in that it has in part been based on my own circumstances of having been born with facial deformities. I want to share some of that relationship because the experiences I’ve had of being born that way, are not only mine, but theirs as well. I bring them into this, not only as a way of sharing with you my experiences under the knife, but as a way of expressing that I know my struggles are not my own and that they are constantly there with me.

After having been going to therapy in NY for a while, my parents started questioning the reasons behind it. They questioned the effectiveness since I’d been going for a couple of years and saw no end. In order to ease them on the idea, I invited my mother to come along with me to a session in one of her trips to NY. After having struggled to explain why it was a good thing I was going, my mother confessed something during our session that changed everything for me. She said “We’ve actually been waiting for it.” Meaning, she and my father had been waiting for the day my experiences under the knife would get to me. This not only made me cry, it calmed me.

My mother went on to explain to my therapist that when I was born, my mother told my father that they were going to do anything and everything they had to do to make me feel as normal as possible. That turned into over a dozen of reconstructive surgeries (I don’t actually remember the number now) from ages 5 to 20, travelling miles within the US, meeting some of the US’s most important doctors, weeks or months away from school, having had my mouth wired shut for two months, looking funny with weird apparatuses on my head, awkward interactions with curious strangers, and a lot of confusion about myself. I’ll be honest about something; there was also a lot of anger. Mostly towards my parents.

When I was younger I saw them as the culprit for my experiences. I blamed them not only for who I was but what was, as I saw it, being done to me. We now laugh at some of my childhood behaviour. We talk about how I would hide my mother’s keys to make her late for work or how I would say I hated green eyes (she has green eyes). But by the time I started opening up to my therapist in NY about my experiences in the surgical room, I also began talking about it a little more with my parents. When I was depressed, they were to blame, but when I felt better, they were and are my heroes.

I was often angered by the idea that they wouldn’t let me feel bad about myself. They were there and were supposed to be the ones to understand. But also, they were there. It hadn’t occurred to me how scary it was for them. Of the few memories I have (I’ve blocked out a lot), one of the more intense ones is having woken up from surgery, confused, not being able to move or properly see, and having my father shakenly hold my hand while we both sobbed. Another one is them attempting to blindly screw in a surgical screw in my jaw while a laid on their lap in pain. Another is them watching me frantically squish a fry into my wired-shut mouth out of frustration and hunger. By my twenties these were not my memories anymore but theirs. Mine now involve my experiences with having low self-esteem which continue to affect my everyday behaviour, theirs are the actual events that happened to me. I had dismissed this part.

I often become so self involved in my problems that I dismiss the reasons why they can’t deal with that fact that I have had problems. They dedicated so much of their money, time, and sanity to making me feel as beautiful and normal as possible that I can now understand their struggle. I could say that I am now happy and grateful but it’s still complicated. What I can say is that this journey of mine has made me think twice about how I deal with my situation. Yes, it happened to ME. But it also happened to them. And that is a complex relationship. For more that I have wanted them to accept everything I feel, I also have to accept what they feel. That has been the biggest lesson of having my face. When I started going to therapy, I was angered at the fact that after a while they started disapproving of it. My parents struggle to understand why I have had issues accepting myself but having had that session with my mother made me realize that they struggled too. At 24 I finally got to hear a little bit of their side of the story. It wasn’t easy either. The year after, I found myself rebelling in different ways and, I can now begrudgingly admit, attempting to get their attention through it. It made me feel petty and childish but it was based on this complex relationship I reference. It’s weird to look back at my behaviour and feelings in the past and admit to myself that much of it depended on my relationship to my parents. But this is because what happened to me also happened to them.

Some days I still struggle with myself. But that’s okay too; it’s been a long journey. But I also have to accept that the reason my parent’s struggle with this is because they love me that much. It’s been a journey of accepting that they did everything they could in order to see me be as happy as I can possibly be, while accepting that it came with a price. My parents are my heroes because they make no excuses (I have plenty for us all). While it was difficult for them to put me through the ordeal of surgery, they did it because they love me, period.

Most people in my life don’t know this side of my story. But it is the most important one. I’ve always made it about my emotional struggles and the mistakes I’ve made. But that is for me to overcome. The important part is that I can now step back a bit more everyday and see my experiences as shared experiences. It is not only about me, but about everyone that was with me during those experiences, particularly my parents. I haven’t made it easy on them and that is a fact they’ll appreciate me admitting. Unfortunately it was because they love me that much. I needed someone to blame and so I blamed the people that were there. The people that held my hand. The people that played with me in hotel rooms and called me beautiful. I needed to blame someone and so I blamed the people closest to me. For that I will always be sorry. But it was also because I love them that much.