“Wonder” could have been designed as an antidote to the headlines. It’s a thoroughly positive movie about the importance of kindness.
Based on R.J. Palacio’s best-selling children’s novel, the movie follows Auggie Pullman, a boy with a craniofacial deformity, as he takes his first anxious steps into an intimidating world.
Like Auggie walking through the gates of his new school, viewers might feel apprehension about what lies ahead. But in the hands of director Stephen Chbosky, this story about embracing difference wants to comfort rather than disturb.
Julia Roberts, who plays Auggie’s mother, Isabel, said some viewers have even called this slice of healthy family fare revolutionary.
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“I guess we have gotten to such a grim state of the world that some sweet little offering like this is kind of a handful of revolutionaries,” Roberts said during an interview alongside her onscreen husband, Owen Wilson.
“I think everybody wants to feel good,” she said. “And we’ve really gotten into this mire and this habit and this sport of negativity. Maybe that’s why the book struck such a chord in me. I feel that I am such an innately optimistic, happy person. And then the news, the world, is just like dulling spray.”
“Wonder” aims to be a spritz of brightener.
Auggie — played by preternaturally poised 11-year-old Jacob Tremblay, from “Room” — is a bright 10-year-old who loves science and “Star Wars,” has undergone 27 surgeries for his complex condition and has grown used to the stares of strangers.
Home-schooled by his mother, an artist who has put her career on hold to care for him, he lives with his loving but sometimes bemused father (Wilson) and a teenage sister (Izabela Vidovic) who feels sidelined by her parents’ absorption in Auggie’s needs.
Overcoming apprehension, Auggie’s parents decide that fifth grade is the time for him to start at school. Amid the classrooms and lockers of a ritzy private middle school, he faces an obstacle course of ignorance, bullying, loyalty and friendship that will strike a chord with many children — and adults who remember that stomach-gnawing first-day-of-school feeling.
Roberts said she and her three children, ages 10 to 12, had all read and loved Palacio’s 2012 novel, which sold more than 5 million copies and spawned a series of spinoff volumes. She particularly liked the way Palacio switches between Auggie’s viewpoint and those of other characters, a structure the film also adopts.
“I thought it was a gentle way of teaching that there’s so many different ways to look at something,” she said.
The other message of “Wonder” is that kindness is a choice, one that takes practice.
Wilson said it reminds him of a quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that’s emblazoned on a Los Angeles building: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
“Of course, yeah, it’s a decision — and same with being kind,” he said. “Hopefully it starts to become more habit, but you can make that decision.”
He admits, though, that it doesn’t work all the time.
“I can sometimes see myself from above: ‘I’m acting like a jerk,’” Wilson said. “I can see myself doing it, but sometimes it feels too good to stop. It’s like eating french fries. I’m just going with it. I’ll pay for it later. I’ll say I’m sorry tomorrow.”
Roberts laughed — off-screen, the pair retain something of their fond-but-exasperated onscreen relationship.
Roberts said she and Wilson quickly developed a rapport with their screen children. She’s full of praise for Tremblay, who has to embody Auggie’s vulnerability, frustration and strength.
“We met Jacob once as Jacob and then he was just Auggie,” Roberts said. “I felt like when he came on the set as Auggie, it was like ‘Hey, there’s our boy. We’ve been waiting for you; get over here.’ ”
“Wonder,” which opened in nationwide Friday, is the kind of holiday-season family release you might have thought they didn’t make anymore. Roberts said it’s unusual in having “an entire cast of humans,” rather than aliens or superheroes.
Some viewers might find its ingredients a tad bland. Others might welcome its positive message at a time when the ugly side of Hollywood is being revealed in a torrent of revelations and allegations of sexual harassment and worse.
Roberts said she subscribes to the belief that “it gets worse before it gets better” but finds herself wondering: “How much worse does it have to be before we have a spring effect?”
“I think it has to be good, in the end,” she said of the tide of revelations. “It’s too ugly not to have a counterpoint moment.”