Director Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2017's Beauty and the Beast) read R.J. Palacio's novel Wonder as he became a father for the first time. Wrestling with the ideas he had about the world that his son would one day inherit, he read messages about a kinder, more accepting world, while also recognizing an artistic variety of voices and perspectives. Now, as his latest film scores high with critics (Rotten Tomatoes 87%) and fans, he's reflecting on the way a live-action family film is grabbing onto audiences and refusing to let go.
Starring Jacob Tremblay (Room), Wonder tells the story of Auggie Pullman, who is born with Mandibulofacial dysostosis, a syndrome that causes deformities in the eyes, cheeks, and ears of those born with it. Hilarious, heartfelt, and down-to-earth, the story shows how Auggie impacts his parents (Julie Roberts and Owen Wilson), sister, fellow students, and administrators, as the fifth grader enters public school for the first time.
Chbosky says that Tremblay is one of the finest actors he has ever worked with, regardless of age. As a child actor, because the prosthetics took nearly two hours to assemble each day, and up to an hour to remove, Tremblay could only work on screen for a certain amount of time. But between Tremblay's acting and the assembled cast that also included Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, and Nadji Jeter, Chbosky could see that there was a significant collection of story and crew to tell this powerful story.
"Becoming a family man, with a five and two year old, I can see that time is sacred," Chbosky shared. "The time you get to spend together as a family is sacred. Since I got married and had children, I've realized that other than the occasional Disney remake about a princess, there aren't any movies I could take my kids to. So making Wonder was a something I did with a measure of respect, to provide the values and the things that they share, in the movie."
"If someone gives me two hours to watch the film, that's a real contract!" he continued. "I want the audience to laugh, cry, and be entertained, but the conversations that a parent or grandparent can have in the car on the way home, posing questions about bullying, inclusion, etc., they're priceless."
Wonder is that kind of movie, that Chbosky has crafted in a way with no intent to preach, but a desire to question and even challenge. It's the kind of film that aims to show how we have more in common than the differences we see, that allows fifth grade teachers to ask classes about who wants to be a Jack Will or a Julian, two characters who must choose how they'll respond to Auggie. But for Chbosky, it's deeply personal in the impact the film has had so far.
"A week ago at the red carpet premiere, a little girl named Morgan, who has cranial facial differences like Auggie, walked up to me and told me that she has a new favorite movie," recalled Chbosky. "I remembered meeting her on set while we were filming, and here she's telling me that we've successfully normalized her experience, that other kids will see that she's like Auggie and make the connection. Once things become normal, they become okay; there are thousands of kids like Morgan."
Chbosky is pushing for that moment. He understands that if you walk a mile in someone else's shoes, that you can see their perspective. He sees that if you can see that every person is a sister, a brother, a child, that you can see that they're God's child and look them in the eye. "There's so much in the media that we hear about and can't control, but we can control how we feel about it and respond," the director said.
Wonder's thesis is "when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind," and Chbosky says that while the public focuses on kind, he and Palacio focus on "choose." It's the thing that helps him see the good even in the characters who have not chosen 'kind,' a kid like Julian.
"Julian chose not kind, but we can see that he's a kid who is put off and afraid, who has to deal with all of his mother's stuff," Chbosky proposed. "When Mr. Tushman says, 'Auggie can't change how he looks but maybe we can change how we see,' Julian gets it. He gets to choose kindness."
"It's so easy to villainize, because we are protective of our own kids, so we label others easily. It's harder to ask, 'Can that boy or girl be reached?' I have that hope for the future."
Chbosky's optimism and his faith in what could be is obvious, even when it extends to adults like Julian's mother. It's an exploration of what it means to be faithful and loving, in a world that often blows off kindness as naive and unrealistic. I ask Chbosky what he might say to adults who consider it naive or who intentionally choose to be unkind, and he has grace to extend to them as well.
"I think I would probably tell them that I can see how protective they are of their kids. I won't tell them how to parent, but I can see how much they love and respect their children. The more we can focus people on how much love and kindness there is, how there's plenty to go around, then we'll never give up on them."
Chbosky's next film, Prince Charming, won't deal with issues on the same level, but he promises that it will be fun... for the whole family. "We need more films like this, that are fun for eveyone," he said, "but Wonder was a once in a lifetime film, that shares what I am as a filmmaker, husband, father, son, and friend. Everything came together professionally, artistically, all together in this little film."
Wonder may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime film, one that can open our minds and change our perspectives. It'll definitely challenge you to consider your own discriminations, your own baser tendencies, but if Chbosky has succeeded, it will find you seeking hope, seeking love, and seeking forgiveness, not wallowing in the past. For lack of a better word, Chbosky's film will make you wonder.