Why “Wonder” and movies like it are hard for me to enjoy (a tribute to a good dog)

My wife is good enough and nerdy enough to go along with me on watching all sorts of ridiculous comic book and sci-fi movies, even though I don’t go along with her for more grounded movies as often as I should. I’ve always preferred my fiction in some kind of an outlandish setting, be it adventures in space or in magical realms or with superpowers, really anything except for regular old ordinary life.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it makes for way more interesting visual storytelling. I mean, real life for most people is vastly devoid of explosions, or glowing magical swords, or death-defying stunts. Another reason, and probably the one that’s more important, is that I struggle with emotional connections to characters in grounded movies. I like it when a piece of media makes me reflect on things in my own life or world, but I prefer to draw those connections out of allegory after a story ends, instead of engaging with media that causes me to think about those real-world issues as I’m consuming it.

It’s not that I don’t like emotional storytelling, or that I don’t like to think about the real world, it’s just that I go to stories to be away from reality for a short time. I like to get caught up in the world that is being presented, then find a revelation about my own life later on. With content that’s grounded in reality, I am more able to connect the plights of the characters with my own experiences, which means that instead of being absorbed by the story that’s being told I start thinking about my own life.

All of this is to say that last weekend my wife and I watched “Wonder,” a story about a child who was born with a genetic disorder going through his first experience in a public school. Except, it’s not just about that… It’s also about family relationships, and bullying, and isolation, and friendship, and a whole lot of other real, grounded topics! It was heartwarming and funny and well made and acted and I really liked it… Except for when my mind wandered from the issues in the fiction to their real-world counterparts.

There’s a dog in Wonder, a dog the kid has had his whole life. In the middle of the movie, not really connected with any of the storytelling happening around it, there’s a scene where the old dog is suddenly sick and gets taken to the vet and doesn’t come home again. I’ve had dogs my whole life, and my family collectively has eight of them right now. The first dog that was really my dog (not a family dog) came to us while I was in high school, then lived with my parents for several years while I was at college and starting out on my own, and now he’s with us again… well, he’s with my wife, really, she actually takes care of him far more often than I do. But he’s getting old, he’s getting really old, and I’ve been working hard to avoid the reality of what that means. I can go watch the episode of Star Trek the animated series about Spock’s pet sehlet, I-Chaya, and watch Spock say goodbye to it, and it will make me think about and process a lot of feelings about my own pet, but it allows me to think about that with one step of detachment. Seeing the dog in “Wonder” pass away made me face those things head on, and it hurt.

It’s not like I don’t want stories to make me reflect on my emotions, but I do find it easier to process them if I can have just a bit of fantasy as a filter.

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