"Wonder," the tear-inducing drama hitting theaters this Friday, drives home one simple message: Be kind.
At least, that's what producer Todd Lieberman ("Beauty and the Beast," "Stronger") hopes audiences take away after watching the film.
"Today, in this moment in time, we're so connected socially, and we're continually inundated with negative behavior, and we feel like it's okay to call people names and it's okay to be mean," Lieberman told The Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. "I think that if we are going to push kindness, it has to be discussed, there's got to be a reason for it. If that reason is 'Wonder,' that's wonderful. We all have it, but we have to be reminded. Right now we're reminded of the opposite, so it would be great if in some way, 'Wonder' is an antidote to that."
Based on the bestselling book by R.J. Palacio, "Wonder" follows a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with facial anomalies so severe, he was forced to undergo 27 surgeries in his short life.
"I know I'm not an ordinary kid," Auggie says in the beginning of the film. He does "ordinary things" like play video games and watching Star Wars, "but I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."
When the film opens, Auggie, who has previously been homeschooled by his protective mother (Julia Roberts), is entering school in the 5th grade - and he's terrified. To hide his face from intruding stares, he wears a kid-sized NASA space helmet, which his father (Owen Wilson) gently removes before sending him through school doors for the first time.
There, he encounters the school's kindly principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) and some of his fellow students, including the well-meaning Jack Will, and Julian, a bully who goes out of his way to ensure Auggie knows just how different he is.
The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Auggie, his older sister - who struggles with the loneliness of high school - and the other kids, showing viewers that everyone is fighting battles of their own, no matter how small.
"That was essential to me and one of the key components, because when we were developing the script, there were several people who just wanted us to tell the story from Auggie's perspective, because it's a movie about Auggie," Lieberman shared. "We said, 'It is, but it isn't. It's really a movie about everybody, it's about how he affects others, but it's also about understanding the perspective of others."
He added, "While Auggie has a physical manifestation of a mask, everybody in all walks of life has some sort of a mask, and if you could get inside of them, you could have empathy. Auggie's is front and center, but mine or yours might be hidden. I like to think people aren't inherently evil, that there's a reason for it. A lot of times it's because we're scared and insecure."
Palacio's novel, a New York Times bestseller, has sold over 8 million copies since its 2012 release. Lieberman said that as soon as he read the book, he knew he had to turn it into a movie.
"I hope this movie has a fraction of the impact the book had," he said. "I like to make movies that make people feel better having left the theater than they did when they walked into the theater, and this fell into that category. It captures the idea of what it means to show goodness to others, to choose kindness, to be nicer and how simple it is to do. It's like that great Wayne Dyer quote, 'When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.'"
With a tender storyline and brilliant acting, "Wonder" encourages viewers to put themselves in someone else's shoes - and to never underestimate the power of empathy, friendship, and kindness.
"Movies can compel behavior, and I feel like, as a storyteller I have the ability to do that, and the responsibility to do that," said Lieberman. "If I'm going to put my energy towards something, and it's gonna be entertainment, I'd love for that entertainment to have some sort of effect. For 'Wonder,' this idea of, if we can do good for other people, good things will happen."
"Wonder," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language.