The Wonder, 2022.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio.
Starring Florence Pugh, Kíla Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Dermot Crowley, Caolan Byrne, Brían F. O’Byrne, Josie Walker, and David Wilmot.
A tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.
It’s practically impossible to begin discussing The Wonder without mentioning its enigmatic opening, which begins on a soundstage rather than in the Irish Midlands in 1862. There is voiceover narration explaining that while this is a work of fiction, the characters are devoted to their beliefs and that storytelling is essential. Throughout this, cinematographer Ari Wegner’s camera gracefully rotates and zooms into the inside of a set, so director Sebastián Lelio’s film (co-written alongside Alice Birch and author of the novel of the same name, Emma Donoghue, responsible for Room which Lenny Abrahamson adapted into an emotional powerhouse that ranks among the 2010s greatest cinematic achievements) can properly begin.
This framing device, while initially confounding, quickly starts to make sense once Sebastián Lelio introduces the titular wonder, 11-year-old Anna (a devastating breakthrough turn from newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), a girl reported by the religious town to have survived for four months so far without food. As such, English nurse Lib Wright (a layered turn from Florence Pugh navigating grief, moral outrage, and solution-searching) is called in alongside Sister Michael (Josie Walker) to investigate the claims.
Keeping in line with the idiosyncratic introduction, the presence of a nurse and nun somewhat pits science and religion against one another while playing off the mystery of what to believe and how viewers should approach such implausible plot devices. As much as I hate using this word, it mostly amounts to pretentious nonsense, only working in regards to not knowing whether or not Anna’s family is telling the truth or playing games for ulterior motives. There’s also a journalist reporting on the findings (Tom Burke) also with a sad past (relating to Black ’47, otherwise known as the Great Hunger) that, once revealed to Lib, instantaneously creates an emotional and sexual connection, one that feels rushed and also doesn’t add much to the bigger picture.
Odile Dicks-Mireaux also seems to be having some cheeky fun with the costume design, with Lib adorning a blue outfit that draws a comparison to Alice in Wonderland, as does Matthew Herbert constructing haunting and ethereal music. Whether or not this is actually Wonderland is up for the viewer to find out, but it should be noted that Sebastián Lelio largely averts traditional thriller constructs to focus on the characters, their suffering with empathy, and the horrible pain unreasonable religious beliefs inflict on one another.
Florence Pugh is reliably outstanding, so it’s no surprise that she finds the humanity and inner conflict dedicated to Lib’s conviction that something is amiss, much like Kíla Lord Cassidy believably sells Anna’s religious devotion and the ongoing miracle. But Kíla Lord Cassidy momentarily one-ups Florence Pugh with a heartbreaking monologue detailing the alarming reasoning behind her extended fasting. The acting from all involved and explored themes convincing enough to overlook questions like “why is Lib so fixated on catching Anna eating something instead of frequently checking the bathroom results.”
From there, The Wonder becomes a story about doing the right thing in a village where no one will believe Lib’s findings, let alone do what’s best for Anna. The committee is a men’s talking (out their asses) group comprised of notable character actors such as Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds that are more concerned with how they can benefit from all this, whether the answer is grounded in scientific discovery or a proven religious miracle.
There’s much to be desired from the thrown-together romantic subplot and hasty resolution, but there’s a cumulative emotional response and outrage over the truth, anchored by compelling performances and juxtaposed character dynamics. It’s enough to overcome the cringe artsy bookends. One wonders what a stronger script stripped of such pretension would have looked like, but The Wonder is an otherwise moving tale with a must-see debut performance from Kíla Lord Cassidy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com