A Flight of Emotions: “White Bird: A Wonder Story” Film Review

A Flight of Emotions: “White Bird: A Wonder Story” Film Review

A story of adversity, kindness and unconditional love



White Bird: A Wonder Story, directed by Marc Forster, is the latest cinematic venture from acclaimed author R.J. Palacio which follows in the footsteps of her previous success, Wonder (2017). While Wonder illuminated the journey of Auggie, a boy navigating life with Treacher Collins syndrome, White Bird takes a darker turn, delving into the depths of social adversity and challenges through a different lens. Palacio's central message of “choose kind” remains at the heart of White Bird, yet the narrative unfolds in a much grittier landscape. Set against a backdrop of turmoil and uncertainty, the film confronts viewers with the stark realities of overcoming adversity in a world rife with darkness. 



A lot can be said about the timing of this film’s release especially when relating to current events happening in different parts of the world, but instead I choose to focus on the key message, themes and film adaptation of White Bird: A Wonder Story. As I have not had the opportunity to read the book, I won’t be able to provide input on which is the superior form of the story (although it’s oftentimes the book). But I’ve had my fair share of watching films chronicling the brutal experience during World War II; from classics such as 1993’s Schindler’s List, 1997’s Life is Beautiful & Bent, 2001’s The Pianist—up to this year’s Academy Award Winner for Best International Feature Film, Zone of Interest. White Bird is the amalgamation of 2019’s Jojo Rabbit & 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.


A Flight of Emotions: “White Bird: A Wonder Story” Film Review


The film opens with the introduction of Julian (Bryan Gheisar), a newcomer navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence. As he grapples with the complexities of school cliques and social dynamics, Julian finds himself embroiled in a conflict that challenges his notions of identity and compassion. Later, we are introduced to Sara Blum (played by the Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren), a celebrated artist whose unexpected visit to Julian's life sets the stage for a profound journey of self-discovery. Against the backdrop of her impending honor at the prestigious MOMA, Sara chooses to share a deeply personal tale from her past—a harrowing account of survival amidst Nazi-occupied France.


As the film unfolds, we gain insight into Julian's past, marked by a history of bullying that casts a shadow over his present circumstances as a new student. 


Through Sara's haunting recollections, we bear witness to the tragic realities of the Holocaust—a narrative that, while not new, White Bird: A Wonder Story was able to render with gut-wrenching authenticity and profound inspiration. As the story continues, told in poignant flashbacks, we are transported into the privileged world of young Sara Blum (played by Ariella Glaser), the daughter of a wealthy Jewish doctor and mathematics professor in Vichy France. Sara's upbringing shields her from the harsh realities of the world, allowing her to bask in the comforts of affluence and social acceptance. Relating to Julian’s dilemma, Sara details how she was considered one of the popular kids in school, hanging out with the girls in school and entangling herself in the cruelty of her peers by participating in the exclusion and ridicule of a fellow student aptly named Julian (played by Orlando Schwerdt), who is afflicted with polio.


Sara will ultimately be at the other side of the situation as the Nazi force started to breach France and occupy the entirety of the country. She finds herself being hunted as a Jew by the Nazis when they start rounding up the Jewish citizens in their town. Forced to confront the very injustices she once perpetuated, Sara is thrust into a battle for survival, relying on the kindness of unexpected allies for sanctuary. 



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In an ironic turn, the boy with a limp would end up saving Sara’s life and have her hide in his family’s farm for close to two years. With Julian’s parents (played by Gilian Anderson and Jo Stone-Fewings) accepting her in their home to take care of her and treat her as their own kin—despite the danger and potential consequences they might encounter for sheltering a Jew. The bond between Sara and Julian, forged in the crucible of adversity, becomes a testament to the transformative power of compassion and redemption. As she grapples with her own complicity in the face of injustice, Sara's journey becomes a mirror through which we confront our own moral dilemmas and ethical responsibilities.


Ultimately, the tale of White Bird is a parable to children about the value of kindness and unconditional love. Viewers are swept into a world where kindness reigns supreme, showcasing the transformative power it holds in shaping lives and fostering love. Yet, for all its poignant messaging, White Bird is not without its flaws. Despite its visually captivating scenes, the film's runtime becomes a little burdensome, coupled with plot holes that detract from its overall impact. Additionally, the narrative's reliance on convenient twists and turns, with its fairy tale-like approach to weighty subjects, may leave some viewers craving more depth and substance.


Many may find themselves experiencing déjà vu, having encountered similar narratives in different forms previously. However, despite these shortcomings, the film manages to hold its own as an enjoyable watch. Credit is due to the talented ensemble cast, whose performances infuse the story with depth and sincerity, ensuring viewers remain engaged even during slower moments. While the film occasionally meanders and feels repetitive, it never loses its grip on the audience's attention.


“White Bird: A Wonder Story” is showing in cinemas now.



Words Charles Boswell

Art Alexandra Lara

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