Netflix original The Wonder takes the simplest of questions – is someone who they say they are? – and imbues it with spiritually resonant stakes. Director Sebastián Lelio frames this bucolic Irish drama through the lens of conflicts both timely and timeless as a would-be miracle goes under the microscope. What starts as a quest to answer a simple “yes” or “no” gets involved in the murky gray area in between certainty.
THE WONDER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In 1862, the English nurse Lib (Florence Pugh) travels to Ireland at a time when her country is blamed for the famine and misfortune befalling the country. In a small village, she’s tasked with observing 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) whose apparent ability to go weeks without eating food makes her a modern miracle. Anna insists she’s subsisting on “manna from Heaven,” but Lib must suspect a more practical and insidious explanation.
As Lib embeds deeper into the O’Donnell clan, she and Anna develop a sense of mutual understanding that complicates her charge to simply watch and report back. While she may deplore Anna’s actions, Lib cannot help but sympathize with her plight and overall situation. The struggle to stick to her assignment raises the question of who Lib is there to care for — especially as she contemplates taking some drastic steps that she rationalizes as staying true to the spirit of her vocation, if not the legality of it.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Though wildly different in their tolerance for sincerity and irony, the premise of The Wonder most immediately recalls Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Both films dwell in the strange reactions to a figure thrust into a foreign land and forced to investigate a spiritual phenomenon – only to find their own moral compasses have been scrambled in the process. (Lelio is trying, somewhat less successfully, to channel the kind of sparse spiritual drama best demonstrated in the work of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman.)
Performance Worth Watching: Miss Flo strikes again! She’s once again the best part of a movie in 2022, outshining her co-stars and the material (though to a far lesser extent here than she had to in Don’t Worry Darling). Florence Pugh embodies the conflicts of her character both emotionally and physically as she tries to navigate her clashing sense of duty to herself and to her mission. Watching Lib transform from a wallflower who unquestionably carries out orders to a crusader willing to upset the established order is the place where The Wonder comes closest to recreating its titular sensation.
Memorable Dialogue: In the film’s prologue, which pans through a studio stage before plunging the viewer into a scene with Lib, a disembodied narrator offers the following thoughts: “The people you are about to meet — the characters — believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.” The voiceover sets the stage perfectly for what’s to come in The Wonder, inviting the audience to be both within and outside of the story. It puts us in the same place as the protagonist, so wanting to give ourselves over to a lie that moves us – but tethered to our own compass for authenticity all the same.
Sex and Skin: There’s one fully clothed sex scene between Florence Pugh and Tom Burke, who plays a journalist reporting on Anna’s case. Despite some moaning and post-coital sighing, the scene is quite tame.
Our Take: The Wonder does end up feeling a bit less than the sum of its parts. Given the combination of Pugh acting up a storm, cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog) providing mystifying visuals from behind the camera, and composer Matthew Herbert dialing up a chilling soundscape, Lelio has all the elements for something truly special. Every once in a while, the film connects on an issue — such as the Victorian-era misogyny of how the village’s male elders don’t actually want Lib to intervene with Anna, simply watch. But more often than it should, the film evades the profound questions and dilemmas it raises.
Our Call: STREAM IT! While The Wonder does get a little too focused on atmosphere and ambiguity for its own good, Sebastián Lelio still orchestrates a compelling blend of character study and moral drama. If nothing else, it’s another gorgeous feather in Florence Pugh’s cap as she gains further recognition as one of her generation’s great performers.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.