Title: The Wonder
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kíla Lord Cassidy
Runtime: 1 hr 48 mins
What It Is: In 1862, Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Pugh) is a nurse carrying the weight of the past, with familial losses and having served in the Crimean War. She’s assigned by a group of scientists and doctors to closely study a fasting girl who claims she doesn’t need to eat, and apparently hasn’t eaten for four months. Lib strikes up a connection with the girl, Anna, who continues to strongly oppose any food and appears to be alive and well for the time being, other than being somewhat weakened. Lib feels there’s something wrong amiss in the strange situation, as Anna’s heavily religious family supports the fasting, much to Lib’s eventual protest. Alongside nosy and charismatic journalist William Byrne, Lib fights to find the truth behind Anna’s extreme decision to starve herself.
What We Think: Another strong year for actress Pugh, The Wonder serves as the perfect return to the dramatic form, considering the involvement of writer Alice Birch, who also wrote the screenplay for Lady Macbeth. Supporting Pugh is a tremendously convincing performance on behalf of Cassidy, who reigns in all her emotional strength into the young adolescent Anna. The pair force us to recognize some very real, very dark truths about history and the repeat offenses played off on behalf of notoriety, conspiracy, and entertainment in the face of real death and sickness. The story as a whole is a chilling conjuration that amalgamates instances where sickness and female intuition are infantilized. Anna’s suffering is combined with disorders within herself and of those around her, set not very long after the very tragic Great Famine, a backdrop that almost serves as a character on its own. Despite famines, and the very clear science that someone who does not eat, will die, Lib is forced time and time again to defend that on behalf of a child’s well-being due to nefarious patriarchal forces and trauma. The toxicity goes deep, unraveling further and further, churning the stakes as well. While some may see it as just redundant, I concede Pugh’s projection of growing annoyance into a burning rage fueled by the actual futility of her role in the case is very much deserved. You feel the power of Anna’s stubbornness, a clearly independent being attempting at convincing us angelic forces may be at play, but is seen right through Lib in moments that become more tragic and beautiful as Anna comes to wither away.
Not only does the film prove as a fascinating delve into the ensemble characters’ psychology, but also a spiraling, smart thriller that has you questioning what can be done, if anything, as we see Lib scrambling and brainstorming frantically as to what to do to save someone she believes is in real danger. It’s a feminist-forward film, though with a few narrative shortcomings that make its concepts or connections feel a bit too coincidental or on-the nose, at least I felt so. Lib’s connection to motherhood making her the perfect if not only candidate to save Anna felt a bit over the top in the face of Lib’s already fierce directive to save lives. In other words, the convention felt a bit overdone. The most damning aspect of the film is the framing, Laughter-esque and meant to make its audience question… something? The 4th-wall-breaking framing brings absolutely nothing to the plate, conceptually or otherwise, but seems to pop in at the beginning, middle, and end just to remind the viewers they’re watching a movie. It was a jarring slap of pretentiousness that kills the suspension of belief that’s needed in order to be fully engaged in a film. If this mechanism was involved in a much different sort of film where it made more sense, would it have worked? Absolutely. There’s plenty of fantastic ways to break the 4th wall and do so with meaning. Here, it felt terribly off. Imagine watching something like The Revenant or Wuthering Heights, but being interrupted by some omniscient being rambling on about “this is a great story, just remember, it’s fiction and it’s a story, but it could have happened in real life!!” No shit. For this reason alone, it brought my score for the film down.
Whoever thought of the framing device, please never write that into a movie again unless it’s deserved. Otherwise, I’d like to come back around to more things about this film that it did well. The score, for one, was unique, contrived of female breaths and coo’s reflecting much Lib’s fears as they contract through the film. Interestingly, it felt and sounded very oceanic and at times chilling. The composer, Matthew Herbert, had worked with director Lelío previously on A Fantastic Woman, Gloria Bell, and Disobedience; I can see why Lelío keeps him around. The costume design was also notably cool, headed by the iconic Odile Dicks-Meaux (An Education, Last Night in Soho), who made some wonderful creative wardrobe choices on behalf of Lib’s character.
Our Grade: B, A beautifully-made and haunting love story about the power of instinct in the face of systematic abuse. The main aspects of the narrative I really loved, and while it could be a little scattered conceptually and at times feels like it needs to force feed us its messages, it was still a really strong watch that I honestly wouldn’t mind watching again with someone who hadn’t seen it, I’ll just have to duck down mentally when the meta-dialogue rolls in. I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to seek their teeth into this distinctive psychological period-drama, as it’s available now on Netflix.