Wonder with julia roberts

— — Starting at a new school with new classmates can be a daunting task for most children. But for Nathaniel Newman, the first day of middle school was extra intimidating, because he’s not like most kids.

Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, an extremely rare craniofacial disorder caused by mutations in the POLR1C gene. It affects an estimated 1 in 50,000 people in the United States.

In the first year of his life, Nathaniel had more than 10 surgeries because of the malformations in his face. But despite the hardships he’s faced so far in his short life, Nathaniel said he “kind of” likes being different.

“I know everyone looks different, except I look a lot more different than everyone else,” Nathaniel, 13, told ABC News’ Elizabeth Vargas.

“I kind of like it,” Nathaniel added. “It just seems fun ‘cause I stand out.”

So in the fall of 2015, when Nathaniel was about to attend his first day of sixth grade at B.D. Billinghurst Middle School in Reno, Nevada, his parents Magda and Russel Newman had a plan to ease his transition.

“Russel and Nathaniel sit down and write a letter,” Magda Newman told “20/20.”

“My name is Nathaniel Newman, and I am 12 years old. I am different. I don’t want you to be surprised when we meet,” part of the letter read. “I have three dogs. I like ‘Pokémon’ a lot, as well as ‘Star Wars.’ I really just want you to treat me like everyone else.”

The letter included a photo of Nathaniel, as well as a mention of the bestselling children’s book “Wonder.”

“Like, ‘Hey, you might have read “Wonder” now. Well, I’m a kid just like Auggie Pullman,’” Russel Newman recalled of the letter.

“Wonder” tells the story of the fictional character 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, who was born with a facial difference — much like Treacher Collins.

While “Wonder” isn’t based on real people, its author R.J. Palacio says she was inspired to write it by a chance encounter she had with a young girl while she was at an ice cream shop with her two sons.

“I realized that there was a little girl sitting directly next to me,” Palacio told “20/20.” “She had a very severe cranial facial difference, and I kind of panicked ‘cause my little boy started to cry hysterically.”

In her haste to protect the girl from her son’s reaction, Palacio said, she turned the stroller around and started quickly pushing it away.

“It was terrible, and I was so mad at myself for the way that I handled it,” Palacio said. “For the rest of the day, I just kept thinking about all the things I wished I’d said and done.”

Palacio started writing with the hope that her story could inspire parents and children alike.

“I just thought, ‘OK, I’m going to write a book, and it’s going to be about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back,’” Palacio said.

When the book came out in 2012, nurse Pat Chibbaro, who worked with the Newman family, read it and immediately told the Newmans about it.

“I literally read it in three hours, cried the whole time,” Russel Newman said. “I remember calling back Pat and going, ‘Pat, did she spy on us? Like, this is freaky.’”

Russel and Magda Newman and their sons Nathaniel and Jacob got to meet Palacio face to face. “And when she saw Nathaniel, you could just see this look in her face,” Russel Newman recalled.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is Auggie Pullman come to life,’” Palacio said.

That is, of course, the precise details of Auggie’s ravaged face, which at his birth was so dangerously misshapen that basic functions like seeing, hearing, breathing and eating were in question. As the book begins, his face, after years of surgeries, is a surface of scars and improvised features made of bones and skin repurposed from elsewhere. Just what does it look like? We can’t know for sure. Each reader must conjure his or her own answer, which makes reading it a very active experience. That quality — rare in a work of realism like “Wonder” — is part of what has kept so many children absorbed by the book’s pages.

“I won’t describe what I look like,” 10-year-old Auggie says on the first page. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Instead, we get to know him by hearing his thoughts about his family, and his fears of going to school for the first time after being home-schooled by his mom, and the stories of his heartbreaking attempts at making and keeping friends over the years. It’s not until page 88, when the narrative voice shifts to his teenage sister, Via, that we get some specifics about his face. His eyes “slant downward at an extreme angle,” with top eyelids “always halfway closed” and lower eyelids that look “like they’re inside out.” He has “tiny cauliflower-shaped ears” as well as a “severe overbite and an extremely undersized jawbone.” There are a few more specific descriptions there, and seeded throughout the book. Still, even after reading the book several times, and reviewing it for The Times, I felt an abiding uncertainty and a kind of tender curiosity about Auggie’s face. Not only was it difficult to imagine how such unusual features cohered visually, I somehow didn’t want to hurt his feelings by wanting too badly to know the brutal reality.

Yet just a few minutes into the movie “Wonder,” the tantalizing central mystery of the book is over. We see Auggie jumping on his bed, then walking to the first day of school with his parents and Via, all the while wearing an astronaut helmet. They arrive at his new school, he takes off the helmet, and there it is: the nonnegotiable truth, or rather the filmmakers’ version of it. (Which, by the way, is not nearly as drastically different as I think most readers of the book will have imagined, but that’s another story.) In the theater, I looked at the reveal with a peculiar mixture of satisfaction and letdown.

Image Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Here is where I encourage anyone whose child has not yet read the book, or seen the movie (and let’s remember that with children’s literature, an entirely new audience ages into a book every year): Try to get hold of a copy that is not the brand-new “movie tie-in edition.” As the cover trumpets, this new edition “includes full-color movie photos and exclusive content!” No, no, a thousand times no. Those full-color photos of Jacob Tremblay in his makeup will make impossible the experience of creating, each child for him or herself, a private image of Auggie.

For ‘Wonder’ movie, Jacob Tremblay connected with real-life Auggies


In “Wonder,” Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie Pullman. “What better character could you be?” Jacob said. “He’s brave, he’s confident, he’s true to himself, and he’s kind.” Julia Roberts plays Auggie’s mom in the movie. (Dale Robinette/Lionsgate) By Sandie Angulo Chen November 15, 2017

Jacob Tremblay hadn’t read “Wonder” when he got a call about playing the lead role in the movie based on the 2012 middle-grade bestseller. But after he got to know the character — Auggie Pullman, a 10-year-old whose face looks different from that of most kids — Jacob didn’t need convincing.

“The thing that mostly drew me to wanting to do the part of Auggie is the message. I thought it was very important,” the 11-year-old actor told KidsPost.

In the story, Auggie starts fifth grade at a private school after years of home-schooling and has to make friends — and deal with bullies.

“What better character could you be than Auggie?” Jacob said. “He’s brave, he’s confident, he’s true to himself, and he’s kind.”

It’s a good thing Jacob wanted the part, because he was director Stephen Chbosky’s first and only choice after seeing Jacob’s breakthrough performance in “Room,” a 2015 drama that earned 20 awards for him and a best-actress Academy Award for Brie Larson, who played the mother of Jacob’s character.

“There was no need for an audition. The combination of seeing him in ‘Room’ with meeting him and his parents and seeing what a lovely Canadian family they were made it clear he was the right kid,” Chbosky told KidsPost. “Jacob’s a mischievous, curious kid who’s so funny, so charming. Since we knew we wanted Auggie to always be a hero, never be a victim, Jacob was a perfect fit.”

Jacob, who is from the Canadian city of Vancouver and has been acting since he was 5, said some aspects of portraying Auggie came naturally to him. “I have lots of things in common with Auggie. We both love ‘Star Wars.’ We have awesome families, and we love our pets.”

But Jacob doesn’t have a craniofacial difference (that’s one affecting the head and face) as Auggie does. So with his family’s help, he reached out to those who do, connecting with a group of children associated with a hospital in Toronto, Canada.

“I sent them a video and asked if they could send me any letters of experiences, tips, stories, anything they wanted me to know,” he explained. “Later I got back all these letters, and I put them all in a binder. I had the binder with me all the time on set and read it over and over again between scenes.”

Jacob, who needed to wear extensive makeup for his role, particularly relied on the letters to help him prepare for emotional scenes, such as when Auggie walked into his class for the first time.

“I remembered reading this one letter about the experience of being stared at, so I read it again before the scene of walking into homeroom,” he said.

“Wonder” author R.J. Palacio, who visited the movie set for 10 days, was touched by Jacob’s dedication to representing kids affected by craniofacial differences.

“To be so young and so aware that he really wanted to do good by them I thought was very profound,” the author told KidsPost.

Jacob says whether or not you’ve read Palacio’s book, he believes audiences can relate to Auggie.

“Everyone wants to be accepted, to be treated equally and to be treated with kindness.”

‘Wonder’ on-screen

Opens: Friday

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Daveed Diggs

Rated: PG


Jacob poses on the movie set with R.J. Palacio, author of the book “Wonder.” Palacio praised Jacob’s dedication to representing a child with a facial difference. (Dale Robinette/Dale Robinette) More about Jacob

Siblings: Two sisters. “They’re actually in the acting business, too. One’s older , and one’s younger , so I’m the middle child.” Emma is also in “Wonder.”

Pets: One dog, named after his favorite character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” “She’s a cute puppy named Rey. . . . We got her after the movie came out.”

Favorite book: “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. “I’m not much of a reader, but I just think that’s cool.”

Favorite movie: “Everyone knows I love ‘Star Wars,’ but after that I’d pick ‘The Karate Kid,’ but the original.”

Favorite superhero: Spider-Man. “Because he’s the youngest superhero. Of all the ‘Spider-Man’ movies, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is my favorite.”

Rule to live by: “Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.”

Actor he would most like to work with: “I would like to work with Harrison Ford in the future — that would be really exciting — or Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Upcoming film/TV projects: A drama, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” starring Kit Harington and Jessica Chastain, in January. Also, the big-budget new version of “Predator” in June: “That one’s about aliens and stuff.”

Read more from KidsPost:

Best books of 2017: R.J. Palacio and KidsPost reviewers offer their favorites

9-year-old becomes youngest to complete the Triple Crown of hiking

Mckenna Grace’s love of singing helped her play “Gifted” math whiz

Wonder could have been a better adaptation if it had afforded Auggie the same interior complexity it gives to Via and the other narrators. To its credit, the movie includes fewer perspectives than the novel does, granting Auggie more room in the film. Still, he functions mostly as the thread that ties all the characters together, and his main mission is adjusting to a society that treats him like an outcast. He’s quiet, likable, and slow to anger. “Dude, this is after plastic surgery. It takes a lot of work to look this good,” Auggie says when Jack asks if he’s considered getting reconstructive work done. But this question isn’t even treated as insulting because Auggie’s entire identity comes back to what he looks like.

It would have been powerful to see Auggie accept his own face, while still wishing to be accepted by others. Instead, he spends much of the first half of the film wearing an astronaut helmet out of shame, an image that dominates Wonder’s promotional material. Eventually, Auggie’s father (Owen Wilson) hides the headgear. “I want to see my son’s face,” he tells Auggie. Of course, many people with craniofacial conditions have a hard time coming to terms with their appearance. But given how few films exist about people with facial differences, scenes like this can leave the false impression that deep insecurity is the default for children like Auggie, when that isn’t always the case. In a story published by The Washington Post, Teresa Joy Dyson, 10, offered her thoughts on the movie: “I didn’t like that Auggie was ashamed of his face. I have Treacher Collins syndrome and I’m kind of proud of my face. I’m not afraid to look at people and show who I am,” she said.

Some of Wonder’s representation problems echo the issues that can arise when Hollywood makes stories about marginalized groups. The existing lack of pop-cultural visibility for people with facial differences (roughly 600,000 people have been diagnosed with a craniofacial condition in the U.S.) is amplified by Hollywood’s emphasis on conventional attractiveness in performers. It’s unfortunate that Wonder—a film about how there’s no shame in being who you are, no matter what you look like—ended up casting a child without a facial difference as Auggie, and fitting him with elaborate prosthetics to re-create his disfigurement. It was hard for me to watch the movie and not feel like Wonder had validated Auggie’s desire to hide himself away out of embarrassment, despite producers’ efforts to cast a child with a craniofacial condition.

“I was pushing hard to cast a boy with Treacher Collins,” Palacio said in an interview with The Sun. “But finding one the right age, who had the right facial differences, whose parents would let him miss school for months of shooting, leaves a very small pool of people.” Palacio’s explanation nonetheless glosses over the fact that her novel never specified which condition Auggie had, which could have allowed producers to expand their search. The author shared that one boy with a facial difference came close to nabbing the lead role:

Acting can be tough. You have to read the lines 30 different times, in different ways, with 100 people watching you, opposite Julia Roberts. Nathaniel had physical limitations, he was hard to understand sometimes, and if you have a $20 million movie you have to make that call. The family did become consultants on the movie, though, and during filming his dad said to me, “Thank God they didn’t cast Nathaniel. It would have been too much.”

Tremblay did a skilled job of bringing Auggie to life. But his casting means that a nondisfigured writer (Palacio) and a nondisfigured actor (Tremblay), who have no personal experience with craniofacial conditions, have now seemingly become the face and voice of an entire community. (For her part, Palacio was inspired to write Wonder after her 3-year-old son started crying at the sight of a young girl with a facial difference.) Investing in authentic casting, despite the difficulties of the search, would have allowed the film’s creators to really stand by their message of inclusion and acceptance.

‘Wonder’ Isn’t Based On A True Story, But The New Dramedy Will Still Break Your Heart

Little Auggie Pullman is about to embark on his very first day of school with kids his age. It’s a scary enough moment for anyone, let a lone a kid with some facial deformities who hasn’t really been in a mainstream school setting before. If this scenario sounds realistic, it’s because it’s a reality for many kids across the globe. That said, the new movie about Auggie Pullman, Wonder is not based on a true story. It is, however, inspired by real events.

Writer R.J. Palacio, who published the novel upon which Wonder is based in 2012, was inspired to write a story about a child with facial deformity after a trip to the ice cream store. As Palacio recounted in an interview for NPR’s All Things Considered, the author was forced to examine her own mindset, during an ice cream trip, she and her children left abruptly after her three-year-old young son became frightened sitting next to a girl with a facial deformity. “I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded,” she told NPR. “What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of.” Instead of getting to work on a time machine to re-do the day, Palacio wrote Wonder. And the rest is history.

Lionsgate Movies on YouTube

Auggie might not be based on a real kid, but he’s pretty real to Palacio and the filmmakers. To help ground him in reality as much as possible, actor Jacob Tremblay visited kids with facial differences and exchanged letters with kids who were willing to share their experiences with him. “They wrote me some stories about them, and I got to come over and visit,” he said in an interview with EW. “They wrote me to teach me things, they wrote me some stories,” he added. The actor also attended a retreat for kids with facial differences and their families, which was “really fun,” he told EW. Tremblay kept all the letters on set to help him get into character. And he also drew upon his newfound friendships for emotional scenes. “I listened to sad music, and I really think about them, the kids I’m friends with. It really helped me,” he said.

Now that Wonder is hitting theaters, the time to draw from real life is over. But that just means that the movie has to face its biggest challenge yet: how to leave a mark on the real world. The book Wonder, which is taught in schools (seriously, even Tremblay is reading the book with his class), has inspired an entire “choose kind” movement — #ChooseKind — and the stars of the film are hoping their movie will do the same. “No matter what we’re trying to accomplish in our day, there’s always that little bit more space to be a little bit more gentle with each other, or sweet with each other,” co-star Julia Roberts told NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday when asked what she hopes audiences take from the film. “Whatever it is, there are so many little gentle moments in the day to express kindness to one another, and it’s just about taking the time and being reminded to do that.”

Many of the Wonder cast is taking part in the #ChooseKind campaign, asking fans to “choose kind” and stay away from bullying. Tremblay even challenged other celebrities to take part, singling out Harrison Ford and Drake in an interview with People Now.

Drake has yet to respond, but in terms of rappers supporting the cause, Tremblay doesn’t have to look very far. One of his co-stars in Wonder is Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame, in case you didn’t know).

Who needs Ford and Drake? I’d say Tremblay and Diggs are more than enough to inspire fans to #ChooseKind.

At first glance, this could be any group of friends chatting over coffee — except that one is a mega-beautiful Oscar-winning actor, Julia Roberts; another is an acclaimed film director, screenwriter and author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky; and the third, R.J. Palacio, wrote Wonder, a middle-grade novel that adults love too and that has been on best-seller lists for over two years.

It’s the story of Auggie Pullman, a 10-year-old boy who was born with severe facial differences. Having been tutored until now by his mother (played by Julia), Auggie is entering school in the fifth grade — a change that’s stressful for any child, but especially so for one who has spent his life watching others look away. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Auggie, his sister and other kids, a technique that gives the reader true insight into how our actions and words really affect others. It’s also built around a teacher’s precepts, sayings related to kindness that echo the challenges everyone in the story grapples with — and that speak to things we can all do to help create a kinder world.

With Auggie’s story now hitting the big screen, Julia, R.J. and Stephen highlight the most meaningful lessons they’ve taken to heart in their own families.

Let your heart be your compass.

Julia initially found out about Wonder ($11, amazon.com) by reading a list of the best books for kids. “It was getting tricky in my house to have a nighttime chapter book everyone would like,” she says. “So I bought Wonder, and I could not put it down. I read it to the three kids (Hazel and Phinneaus, now 13, and Henry, now 10), and they were all as knocked out as I had been. I remember calling my agent after I read the book and saying, ‘I’ll play the mom!'”

Fun Julia family fact: “I’m the designated reader,” she says, and she puts on different voices to play the different characters. “I’m often asked, ‘Mommy, can you just use your regular voice?’ I do a very dark version of Julian, a bully in Wonder.”

You don’t have to be mean to hurt someone.

The idea for Wonder grew in R.J. after she and her younger son, then 3, were at an ice cream shop next to a child who had severe craniofacial differences — and her son cried in fear. Wanting to avoid hurting the little girl’s feelings, R.J. rushed to leave, spilling milkshakes and unintentionally creating a scene as she did so. “As I pushed the stroller away, I heard the mom say in as sweet and calm a voice as you can imagine, ‘Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go,’ ” R.J. says. “And that just got to me … what could I be teaching my children so they could understand how to respond better next time? I was disappointed in myself. I started writing Wonder that very night.”

R.J. Palacio, the author of ‘Wonder’ and ‘Auggie & Me.’ Robert Trachtenberg

Always be kinder than necessary.

While the three are together, Stephen, who directed Wonder and cowrote its screenplay, asks Julia how we can all work to be better humans in general. “I think we need to stop criticizing,” she says. “Honestly, it’s become a sport — at lunch, online, wherever. ‘I can’t believe the way she’s wearing her hair,’ or ‘He looks so…’ It’s all so petty, and we’re grown-up people. There have to be more interesting things to note about one another … and I’m talking to myself here too, because I find the sarcasm and the criticism and stuff like that very humorous, but there’s a time when you go, ‘Well, why don’t I say all the true and kind things?'”

Never, ever give up.

When R.J. started writing Wonder, her older son had just finished fifth grade, so she set her story at that age level. “It wasn’t the easiest year for him,” says R.J. “It’s an age when they’re toggling between being little kids and being teenagers. It’s a fragile moment in their lives. He had a couple of friend betrayals …. When you’re living it through your kids, it becomes that much more touching. I was going to great pains to raise a son with the idea that kindness is paramount … but I kept thinking, If every other parent isn’t doing the same thing, I’m kind of spitting in the wind. I remember one incident where my son got his feelings hurt and he was sad, and another mother’s answer to that was ‘Well, maybe you need to toughen him up.’ That’s not really the answer. Rather than take my son down, why not try to raise the bar for what we expect from our kids?”

Believe you can.

Ironically, working on the feel-good movie triggered parental guilt for Julia and Stephen, who both spent long periods on set. Taking a movie role is “a complete mathematical equation now,” says Julia of juggling the demands of parenting with the realities of moving onto a movie set for weeks at a time. “The minutiae are incredibly irritating,” says Julia. “But I knew I was getting a pass on this one because the kids were like, ‘Mom, you have to make this work.'”

Kind words do not cost much.

Making the film kept Stephen from his daughter’s birthday, an ache soothed by a sweet note from Julia that read in part, “Your daughter will not remember her 4th birthday, but she’ll always remember that her daddy made Wonder.” Says Stephen, “I will never forget that kindness, because I was really messed up that day. Trust me, fathers feel their own guilt.” Later, during filming, Stephen was able to fly his daughter in to play Auggie’s sister, Via, in a scene in which she just happened to be celebrating her 4th birthday. “So I got to have the birthday I missed!” he says.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) gets his first look at his new school with his mom, played by Julia Roberts. Lionsgate

Whatever you are, be a good one.

“I for sure need to break up with my phone,” says Julia. “Because once the kids get home from school and it’s the time of day when I’m getting a lot of messages, I’ll be making dinner and checking my phone and talking to the kids, but that’s not the conversation they want to have. I kind of try to do too many things at once, which I am not very good at, so I go through periods when I make a conscious effort once they’re home from school to put the phone down and try not to give it too much attention until they go to bed. But then you’re in the weeds.”

Very little is needed to make a happy life.

Despite her admitted dependence on her smartphone, Julia draws a harder line with her kids when it comes to gadgets. “I have a fifth grader who doesn’t have a device,” she says. “I think it overcomplicates the challenging times of fifth grade…a phone is not a simple thing of direct communication, getting a busy signal and calling back later. Now there are so many indirect ways of showing someone appreciation — or not. There are these little side doors now into people’s feelings…. Not to be down on social media, but it makes people impatient for answers and information. There is no waiting for your pictures to get developed at the drugstore, the patience of it.”

Nothing is stronger than gentleness.

“My mom gave me unconditional love,” says R.J. “I think that’s the one thing we can really do for our kids. Not to say that we have to be blind to their little quirks and faults, but it helps you in life.” Julia agrees, but adds, “I think some people confuse unconditional love with spoiling. None of my kids would think I have a problem with that distinction. I do love them unconditionally, and I try, when they do something wrong, to say, ‘This doesn’t change the amount of love in this house for you, but you’ve got to do your homework.’ Because I think that also makes a child feel safe.” The lesson is clear: Put kindness first, and the rest will follow.

Your child’s school can become officially nicer by taking the annual “Certified Kind” Classroom Challenge, a curriculum for third through sixth graders developed around Wonder. For more information, go to wonderkindclassroom.com.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Julia Roberts role in Wonder left her ‘speechless’

Media playback is unsupported on your device Media captionJulia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay star in new film Wonder

Julia Roberts says “she’s speechless” about the character behind her latest role in Wonder – the mother of a boy with a rare congenital condition that has affected the way his face is formed.

The film, out on Friday, is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by R J Palacio, and follows Auggie’s journey as he takes the difficult step of his first year at school.

“For me, when I read the book, I thought it was so special, so incredible the way she had crafted the story about this family, and that’s really a story about all of us,” says Roberts.

Roberts’s character, Isabel Pullman, home educates Auggie – played by 11-year-old Jacob Tremblay – until he is 10 before deciding to send him to school.

  • ‘They called me names like Scarface, Joker, Buttface’

“I think, for me, the one thing in Isabel that really just left me speechless was her ability as a parent to spend every minute of 10 years with this incredible boy, and wake up one day and know that against all of her mama bear instinct that the right thing to do was to send him out into the world.

Image copyright Lionsgate Image caption Owen Wilson plays Auggie’s dad in Wonder

“To know that he was a good and funny, sweet, capable boy and could find his way in the world. And that is what he needed to do regardless of her wanting to keep him home wrapped up in cotton balls.

“That all of her weepy desire to stay close was not as important and valuable as her knowledge that he needed to be in the world.”

Tremblay, who had to wear extensive make-up for the role which took two hours to apply every day, is best-known for playing Brie Larson’s son in Room, the film which won her a best actress Oscar in 2016.

Image copyright Lionsgate Image caption Roberts says “it is within our grasp to be kind, to be gentle”

“I think the main message of this movie is to choose kind, but also to be true to yourself, and to just never give up,” says Tremblay.

“While doing research I found a group of kids in the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto who were affected by facial differences, and I reached out to them and I asked if they could send me any letters or experiences or tips or anything they just wanted me to know.

“Later I got back all these letters, and I had them all in this binder, and I had it with me all the time on set.

Image copyright Lionsgate Image caption Auggie faces challenges when he starts school

Tremblay explains: “I read them over and over again, and one of the letters was about the experience of being stared at, and I remember reading that letter before I did the scene where I walked into homeroom for the first time,” he says, recalling one of the film’s key moments.

Roberts hopes that audiences will take the same message from the movie that she and Tremblay have.

“I think the way we feel is just joyful,” she says.

“It is within our grasp to be kind, to be gentle, to look beyond the surface of any and every situation a little deeper, and maybe just to slow down and take a little bit more time with each other.

“People get so scared of things that are different. And I think that Stephen Chbosky has made this beautiful movie, it’s like a gift of comfort to know that it’s all gonna be ok.”

Wonder is released on Friday 1 December in UK cinemas.

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Film Review: ‘Wonder’

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), the central character in Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” is a brainy 10-year-old boy with a sweet high voice and a congenital facial deformity, whom numerous corrective surgeries have left looking like a cherub after a car accident. His left eye tugs downward as if a teardrop were falling from it; his ears are bulbs of flesh, and his face is framed by a pinkish ring of scar tissue. That said, he’s not the Phantom of the Opera. He’s just an ordinary kid whose looks take a bit of getting used to.

Auggie is a science geek who loves “Star Wars” and Minecraft, ice cream and X-Box sports games; he’s fueled by all-American fantasies of going to outer space. (He likes to walk around in a toy astronaut helmet that conceals him and feeds his dreams.) His face, which looks youthful and old at the same time, is jarring the first time you see it, but the more you take in his innocent if slightly askew elfin features, the more his soul shines through. Any thoughts that he’s ugly, or odd, are really in the eye of the beholder.

Movies about people with dramatic disfigurements run a high risk of being mawkish and manipulative. Yet maybe because the dangers of grotesque sentimentality loom so large, a handful of filmmakers, over the years, have made a point of taking on stories like this one and treading carefully around the pitfalls. David Lynch did it in “The Elephant Man” (1980), his shrewdly restrained, underbelly-of-London Gothic horror weeper, which revealed John Merrick, beneath his warped and bubbled flesh, to be a figure of entrancing delicacy. Peter Bogdanovich did it in “Mask” (1985), his straight-up tale of a teenager with a face of scowling strangeness who came to embrace the person he was.

Popular on Variety

“” is a movie that belongs in their company. It’s a very tasteful heart-tugger — a drama of disarmingly level-headed empathy that glides along with wit, assurance, and grace, and has something touching and resonant to say about the current climate of American bullying. At the same time, the film never upsets the apple cart of conventionality. “Wonder” is an honest feel-good movie, but it lacks the pricklier edges of art.

Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), in their cozy Brooklyn brownstone. But now that he’s 10, she and Auggie’s dad, Nate (Owen Wilson), have made the decision to send him to middle school. They know they can’t shield him from the world forever, and they have no desire to.

Roberts and Wilson make a compelling team; they play the Pullmans as supremely sensitive, loving parents who have the occasional tug-of-war spat about what’s best for their special son. Yet both want him to stand up for himself, and to be part of a community. Auggie wants that, too, though the kids he meets at Beecher Prep School don’t make it easy. By the end of his first day there, he has already been nicknamed (after one of his favorite “Star Wars” characters) “Barf Hideous,” and he chops off the rat-tail braid that’s his only fashion statement — a testament to the destructive power of peer pressure. Just enough of the kids treat Auggie like a freak to make the belief that he is one tough for him to shake.

This is the third feature directed by Chbosky, the novelist who actually got his start as a filmmaker (with the 1995 indie “The Four Corners of Nowhere”), and it was his second, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), that established him as a major directorial voice. Adapted from his own first novel, “Perks” was the most remarkable coming-of-age movie in years, a drama that took in, with astonishing authenticity, the pleasures and perils of teenage life. (It also used David Bowie’s “Heroes” in a way that’s so transporting it trumps every musical sequence in “Baby Driver.”) “Wonder” is a movie by the same sharp-eyed, open-hearted, close-to-the-ground filmmaker. Chbosky, working in the tradition of Jonathan Demme, doesn’t hype what he shows you, and he cuts to the humanity of everyone on screen, even those who act badly. (He has a touching refusal to demonize.)

“Wonder,” adapted from R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel (which took its title from the 1995 Natalie Merchant song about overcoming disfigurement), is a less audacious film than “.” But Chbosky’s intense understanding of the layered personalities of kids is a rare gift. He lets the movie breathe by refusing to restrict the drama to Auggie’s point of view. It’s built around his gentle sadness and yearning, but it opens up into chapters told from the vantage of Jack (Noah Jupe), his science-class partner, who looks like he might be turning into Auggie’s buddy, only to leave him with a sense that he can’t trust anyone; and Auggie’s high-school sister, Via (Izabela Vidoovic), who’s the most complicated character in the movie. She has grown up in a family so organized around Auggie that her own needs can never come first. She wouldn’t think to question that, but the dynamic has graced her with both compassion and a hidden wound, and Vidovic’s pensive presence lends her scenes a rapt center of gravity.

Chbosky has a sixth sense for how to let a drama flow from anecdote to anecdote. Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, leads to the moment when he overhears Jack, goaded by the smug, fashionable Julian (Bryce Gheisar), snarking to the other kids about him — a devastating betrayal, but one that turns out to be crucial to cementing their friendship. Jack can’t get past his prejudice until he has outed it. “Wonder” is a movie that’s finely attuned to what bullying is actually about: kids walling off their feelings, giving into the dark side of themselves to be superior. Bullies, of course, weren’t born bad, but in “Wonder” the idea is no pious abstraction — it plays out in every encounter between Auggie and those who would treat him meanly. The scenes are really about how his presence is a threat to their too-cool-for-schoolness.

“Wonder,” as effective as it is, is a movie in which everything has a way of working out with tidy benevolence. Via goes from being shunned by her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell), who has joined a hipper clique, to falling for a charismatic kid (Nadji Jeter) from the drama club to trying out for a student production of “Our Town” to winning her friend back to becoming the understudy who knocks ’em dead on opening night. Auggie, over the course of fifth grade, goes from being the school goat to a school hero. Yet Jacob Tremblay, acting from behind his transformative make-up, roots that journey in something real: the fact that who you are, whether you look like Auggie Pullman or someone more “normal,” can be a prison or a liberation, depending on the path you choose. Of all the films this year with “wonder” in the title (“Wonderstruck,” “Wonder Woman,” “Wonder Wheel,” “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”), this is the one that comes closest to living up to the emotional alchemy of that word.

The Real-Life ‘Mom Moment’ That Led to Emotional Bestseller (and Now Movie) Wonder

The moment that led to the bestselling children’s novel Wonder — with its message about the power of kindness that is now at the center of a new movie — is one that author R.J. Palacio wishes she could take back.

A decade ago, “I was in front of an ice cream store with my two sons and my younger son, who was only 3 at the time, saw a little girl that had a very significant craniofacial difference,” says Palacio, 54. “He got a little scared and he started to cry.”

“In my haste to kind of shield her from seeing his response or his reaction to her face, I kind of whisked him away really quickly. Afterwards, I started really thinking … what I should have done, of course, is just turn to the little girl and maybe started up a conversation and shown by example that it was really nothing to be afraid of. That just got me thinking about what it must be like to face a world every day that doesn’t quite know how to face you back.”

Watch the full interview with Wonder author R.J. Palacio on Shelf Life, now on PeopleTV. Go to PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device. For more on Wonder, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

Image zoom Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder. Dale Robinette

A New York city graphic artist who has designed book jackets for authors including Salman Rushie, Sue Grafton and Thomas Pynchon, Palacio had never written a book herself. She started Wonder that night. The book tells the story of Auggie Pullman, a boy with facial differences caused by a rare genetic condition who enters middle school after years of homeschooling. As he makes friends, faces bullying and makes it through the gauntlet of fifth grade, Palacio shifts narrators to show the perspectives of Auggie, his classmates, his older sister and other characters, offering a sympathetic look at the inner worlds of tweens and teens alike.

RELATED: Wonder Author R.J. Palacio Shares Her Advice for Parents of Middle-Schoolers

“A lot of the sub-stories were somewhat drawn from life,” says Palacio (a pen name for Raquel Jaramillo), whose son Caleb is now 21 and son Joseph is now 13. Before Wonder was published, she let Caleb, then a 9th-grader, read it. “I was a little nervous about his reaction. He said, ‘Mom, this is really great. This should be required reading in every middle school. But couldn’t you have done a better job of changing some of those stories in there?’”

Published in 2012, it has sold more than eight million copies worldwide — and indeed become required reading in many middle schools along with a favorite among parents and tweens. “I read it myself, then came home and read it out loud to my kids as our bedtime book,” says Julia Roberts, who plays Auggie’s mom in the new movie version, which stars Jacob Tremblay as Auggie. (Palacio says she was “so nervous” to meet Roberts on set. “I’ve been such a Julia Roberts fan for so long! And then you realize, ‘Oh, she’s just a person.’ An amazing person. She’s so funny, and she’s so smart, and she’s so best friend material.”)

Image zoom Author R.J. Palacio. Russell Gordon

The secret to Wonder‘s broad appeal is simple. “It’s a very optimistic book,” says Palacio, who often speaks at middle schools in an effort to spread the book’s motto, “Choose Kind.” “Especially now, people want to be reminded that there is an inherent goodness in people.”

Palacio also has a challenge to parents and kids: “It’s not true that middle school has to be this horrible rite of passage. It really doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve just come to expect it.”

Image zoom The book Wonder, published in 2012. Peter Zambouros

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with parents,” she says. “They’ll say: ‘Well, you know, she’s in middle school now. What am I going to do? She doesn’t listen to me anymore, she’s going through a mean phase, but, you know, I guess all kids go through that.’ I don’t buy into that. I think that in middle school, kids ae still listening to what parents tell them. They might be pretending like they’re not listening. They might be looking down at their smartphones, and they might be, like, just a little too cool for school to sort of really, you know, actively listen, but they’re still hearing us. I think parents still need to make it known that they have certain expectations. We can’t expect perfect behavior from our kids, but we can expect them at the very least to show each other kindness and a little bit of respect.”

Wonder leans on its great cast to tell an engaging, warmhearted family story

The old maxim exhorting us to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is the thesis of Wonder — it’s even quoted at the end of the film — and Wonder handles it well, following a boy named August Pullman, his family, and his friends through a year of change in their lives.

August, nicknamed Auggie, was born with a chromosome condition that causes facial deformities, and after 27 surgeries he still looks noticeably different from other kids his age. His perspective on his life is certainly the core of the movie, and that’s part of what made the novel it’s based on a best-seller.

But Wonder doesn’t focus exclusively on Auggie, and that’s its biggest strength. The film’s bigger story is that even though Auggie’s family — his parents, his sister, even his dog — has bent their lives around his, they, too, are dealing with their own struggles. So are Auggie’s friends, and even his enemies.

While the movie’s premise feels prone to the maudlin, it’s ultimately quite poignant; Wonder is a family-oriented tale in which people make mistakes in the way they treat one another, but learn and grow in a way that doesn’t feel condescending to the film’s younger audience. Importantly, Wonder is also a movie about a young boy with a condition that makes him stand out from his peers — but it doesn’t valorize or patronize him by painting him as a saint. It respects Auggie too much for that.

Wonder is a sensitive exploration of the many ways people struggle in ordinary life

The movie picks up as Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is getting ready to attend school for the first time, a new fifth-grader who’s been homeschooled thus far. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), his father Nate (Owen Wilson), and his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) are all supportive and encouraging, but he’s not convinced it’s a step he is ready to take, and when they walk him to school through the park on his first day, he’s reticent to take off his beloved astronaut helmet.

Thanks to the school’s kindly headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), Auggie has already met three of his classmates: chatty Charlotte (Elle McKinnon); quiet Jack Will (Noah Jupe); and two-faced Julian (Bryce Gheisar), who performs niceness around adults but harbors a serious mean streak. He soon meets another classmate, the immediately kind-to-him Summer (Millie Davis), and likes his energetic teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), but school is still difficult for Auggie. He knows the other kids are looking at him, even if nobody is being mean. Every day makes him question whether he’ll ever be able to feel like he truly fits in.

Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in Wonder. Lionsgate

His sister Via, meanwhile, is in high school and discovering that her lifelong best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has changed over the summer. She joins theater and makes a new friend, Justin (Nadji Jeter), but simultaneously grapples with feeling as if she’s in second place regarding her parents’ affections — something she’s grown used to, given Auggie’s great need for care and attention.

Via’s story is told from her perspective, which adds layers to our understanding of her, and Wonder delves into the perspectives of other characters, too: Jack Will, Miranda, Isabel, and even Julian. It turns out that learning about other people’s fears, wants, hurts, and joys can make everything those people do — the bad stuff and the good stuff — make more sense. And as the school year goes on, they all grow in their maturity and relationships with one another, and in their ability to experience empathy.

The film leans on strong characters and a strong cast to tell a warm, meaningful story

Wonder succeeds largely on the strength of its cast, which includes a bevy of stellar performers led by Tremblay’s sensitive portrayal of Auggie as a complicated kid who worries about his classmates but sometimes yells at his parents and sister, too.

Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Jacob Tremblay, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder. Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

But it’s also a tricky story to tell without tipping over into manipulation. Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) adapted R.J. Palacio’s source novel into a screenplay with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, and it neatly avoids becoming a didactic after-school special about why it’s important for people to be kind by letting the story work as a character piece, full of humor and warmth and conflict and fun. Sometimes the adults deliver speeches about growing up and dealing with life, but those speeches always seem to flow organically from their characters.

Of course, Wonder is still a moderately sentimental film. And as a movie called Wonder that’s aimed at families, that characteristic is practically in its DNA. But it earns the sentiment. Auggie struggles, and so do his parents, and his sister, and his friends. And so do we all. A bit of kindness is never out of place. And these days, it seems more important than ever.

Wonder opens in theaters on November 17.

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Ten-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) steals hearts within minutes of making his introduction—his head still covered in his beloved astronaut helmet—in Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder.

Auggie is creative, has a passion for all things scientific and aspires to visit the moon. Once he removes his helmet, we learn something else he already knows about himself: his juvenile face is scarred, his eyes tear-shaped and his earlobes small flaps. Having undergone 27 surgeries—none of which, he says, have made him look quite “ordinary”—and grown up homeschooled by his doting mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), he isn’t excited to go for his first day at a private middle school.

In middle school, Auggie faces unrelenting ridicule and experiences what it means to have and keep friendships—all while he comes to terms with his condition. He is well liked by his peers (and maintains that from his audience) by demonstrating his knack for winning people over despite his reserved nature. What is, arguably, most impressive about this indelibly clever and good-hearted pre-teen is that he remains his nerdy, authentic self in the wake of the challenges he is met with, as opposed to acting up. Perhaps this can be attributed to his family’s perennial support, which he can count on even when he might not want it.

Read also: ‘Coco’: Pixar’s love letter to Mexican culture

The two-hour film leans on its talented cast to tell its earnest and sweet family story. Jacob Tremblay as Auggie delivers a strong performance, inviting the audience to emotionally invest in his character development throughout the course of the film. Izabela Vidovic, who plays Auggie’s sister Olivia “Via” Pullman, effortlessly captures the despondency of a teen who has had to silently deal with her parents’ benign neglect of her since Auggie’s birth. Julia Roberts portrays a selfless and unassuming mother who is tasked with juggling the feelings of everyone in the Pullman household, and is well placed along Owen Wilson who plays Auggie’s thoughtful and sensitive dad.

Based on the number one New York Times bestseller of the same name by RJ Palacio, it conforms to the multi-character narration style of the book. While this may not work for all movies, in Wonder, an awareness of varied perspectives gives rise to an understanding of each character’s feelings, motives and responses, and how this contributes to the larger plot. It’s wonderful (pun intended?) how Chbosky takes this story about a little boy with a genetic deformity and weaves it around the people important to him: his parents (Julia Roberts & Owen Wilson), his sister (Izabela Vidovic), his pet dog Daisy, his friends (as well as enemies) at school, and memorable English teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs).

Overall, Wonder both moves and amuses as it explores the dynamics of Auggie’s life at school and at home. Packed with some cliché poster-worthy quotes you can find in Palacio’s spinoff 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts, this sentimental film is sure to tug at your heartstrings with its universal message of promoting kindness and acceptance—a message that can be appreciated by one and all.

To quote from a picture posted on Twitter by @WonderTheMovie earlier this week: “When given the choice between reading the book or seeing the movie, choose BOTH!” (afr/kes)

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