THE WONDER is a slow, literary film with potent themes of religious trauma that are amplified by two top-notch lead performances

Stories define our lives. When we learn about the world around us as kids, we define our surroundings by stories told to us by others, whether these stories are true or false. THE WONDER, the new film from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, explores what happens when the stories a family uses to define life involve blind faith in beliefs that corrode their well-being and health. Lelio bases the film off of a novel from acclaimed author Emma Donoghue — who also writes the screenplay and produces the film — and creates a slow but satisfying psychological thriller with many layers of meaning. The film is by all accounts a “slow-burn”– a story that forces the audience to be patient before revealing the true meaning — which may not be for everyone. Viewers who are looking for something more engaging will understandably be turned off by Lelio’s pacing here, but for those who like looking for the hidden metaphors in each scene, this will be a fascinating watch.

Florence Pugh stars as Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, an English war nurse who is called to rural Ireland to work on a peculiar case: a small girl (newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy) who has not eaten for four months and who is still alive and well. The council of the small town where the girl’s family resides has summoned a nun and a nurse to watch Anna, who shows no symptoms of any type of sickness or deterioration. When Wright arrives at the small town, she quickly finds the common view among both the family and the townsfolk is that Anna has been chosen by God  to be a miracle child who no longer requires the sustenance of mortal beings. However, the nurse endeavors to find the scientific truth about what is really occurring instead of believing the stories and myths of the people that surround her, much to the family’s dismay. 

What follows is a film that delves into both the importance of stories and the negative impact they can have through damaging generational teachings. THE WONDER serves as an indictment on religion — specifically Christian fanaticism — and the way it can serve as false hope for a reality that needs tangible solutions and discussions. Anna’s family in this film is religious in a way that corrodes the dynamic between a mother who puts the idea of Jesus over the livelihood of her own children and a daughter who has been forced to believe her life is simply a tool for the Lord. Older generations bear the responsibility of teaching younger generations their morals and beliefs, but when these passed down stories come from a place of blindness and faith to an unseen power that disregards a child’s health, this can be a source of trauma for the next generation.

Donoghue’s work heavily deals with themes of trauma and how we cope, whether it be through throwing oneself into work and trying to numb the pain or searching for salvation in a religion that tells victims the trauma they endure is their fault and Christ the only answer. Every main character in THE WONDER is dealing with their own personal demons as they try to get through life even though the past haunts them, but the way they find solace is through love and through genuine compassion from others. Our two main characters, Anna and Lib, have a relationship that serves as the heart and soul of this film and that injects a warmth into an otherwise cold landscape the director is painting. They share the things that burden them when they are alone together, and find comfort in realizing that another person can show empathy and understanding to even the darkest of stories.

This dynamic, and in turn the movie as a whole, would not work nearly as well if it weren’t for Pugh and Cassidy’s incredible work throughout the film. Pugh is expertly subtle with her mannerisms and emotions, showcasing the disposition of someone that has seen the worst of humanity through war, but who still feels as though she can help people in need. Cassidy, however, is the standout here, giving an astonishingly subdued and heartfelt performance as a girl who believes the stories she has been told all her life, but who also wants to escape from the religious trauma that seems to be growing with each passing day as she fasts further. The audience is also presented with gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner, who crafts many shots to appear like a gothic painting straight from 1800s England. The cinematography combined with a hauntingly gorgeous score from Matthew Herbert creates an eerie atmosphere that reflects the trauma below the surface of the storyline, but one that eventually contains hope for a deliverance from this pain.

When looking through the reception of THE WONDER, I found a wide array of interpretations and theories regarding the themes, which to me is indicative of an ambitious film that has a lot on its mind. While the film often has a sluggish pace and contains lengthy conversations full of subtext, the narrative will likely be rewarding for those who appreciate analysis and enjoy discussing a movie after the credits roll. THE WONDER also contains a curious way of framing the story, with narration that fiddles with the fourth-wall in a manner  that, while meaningful, distracts from the immersion of the story. However, this framing further explores powerful messaging that is spread throughout this film, and never negates the inventive writing on display here. THE WONDER is a film that is certain not to please everyone, but it has no shortage of themes for literary lovers to sink their teeth into.

Grade: A-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close