The duration a person can survive without food may last between 1 and 2 months, depending on various factors ranging from age to body size and overall general health.
But in the case of Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, an 11-year-old girl named Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy) has not eaten for four months. Not a single food and yet, she appears to be healthy. How is this even possible? Is it some kind of a miracle? Or could it be a hoax?
To determine the truth behind the mystery of this fasting girl, we are introduced to an English nurse named Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), who is hired by the village committees (among them includes Toby Jones’ physician role as Dr McBrearty and Ciaran Hinds’ Father Thaddeus) to watch and observe Anna around the clock.
Lib takes her job seriously and we learn she’s more of a realist who believes in actual medicine rather than divine intervention. She tries to convince Anna and even her mother, Rosaleen (Elaine Cassidy, who turns out to be Kila Lord’s real-life mother) to feed the child or her neverending starvation would cause a health risk. The people in the village town and the O’Donnells remain convinced that Anna’s unlikely survival has to do with “manna from heaven”.
Kudos go to Sebastián Lelio, winner of the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film for A Fantastic Woman and the same-sex romantic drama Disobedience starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, for embracing the unusual story of the fasting girl right from the get-go.
Matthew Herbert’s constantly ominous and atmospheric score along with Ari Wegner’s moody cinematography also play a big part in turning the movie into an eerie drama of blind faith, religion, scepticism and uncertainty. The pace is deliberate and moves like a slow-burn drama, which could be a turn-off for those with short attention spans.
But I find the movie absorbing enough to keep me watching (no pun intended) as the truth surrounding Anna gradually unfolds. And that is not all because Lelio — working from an adapted screenplay that he co-wrote with Alice Birch and the author herself, Emma Donoghue from her 2016 novel of the same name — also did a good job exploring Lib’s character arc from her dedication to her job as a nurse to silently coping with her own personal demon. The latter in question involved her traumatic past of grief and loss — a result that has her alleviating her pain through an evening ritual of taking a liquid sedative and pricking her own finger.
Florence Pugh plays the role of Lib very well and her engaging screen presence is among the reasons that made The Wonder compulsively watchable. While Pugh steals most of the show here, newcomer Kila Lord Cassidy proves to be a great find carrying a solid supporting turn as Anna.
If there are any downsides, it’s kind of a missed opportunity to see character actors like Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds reduced to thankless roles. Then, there’s the jarring opening sequence and the subsequent breaking-the-fourth-wall moments that feel somehow out of place. Not to mention distracting and dare I say, unnecessary. Still, such shortcomings — well, at least from my point of view — do not deter from the movie’s overall engrossing narrative along with Lelio’s layered direction and Pugh’s scene-stealing lead performance.
The Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.