By Caroline Stanton
“We are nothing without stories and so we invite you to believe in this one” is the beckoning into the world of Ireland in “The Wonder,” just a few decades after the devastating Irish famine.
I can say with absolute certainty that I have never encountered a movie like “The Wonder.” This film is closely based on the book “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue. I went into watching it with very little knowledge of the premise of the film I was about to experience, and I’m honestly glad I did. I walk away from “The Wonder” with a new perspective and a deeper understanding of the delicate balance between faith and skepticism, as well as love and despair.
The movie follows an English nurse, played by Florence Pugh, who is hired to watch a poor Irish girl who has become renowned in her community for breaking everything science teaches us to be true – she has not eaten in four months. The job of the nurse, Lib Wright, is to watch the girl to try to see who is secretly feeding her. Many of the townspeople completely rule out any influence of the supernatural and are only focused on finding the physical source that sustains her. The girl engaged in this month-long fast, Anna O’Donnell, played by Kíla Lord Cassidy, claims that she is eating manna from heaven and that she has been chosen by God to be a modern Catholic saint.
The movie is admittedly extremely creepy and left me feeling disturbed and unsettled the entire time, but I was also so intrigued and desperately wanted to know what was going on with Anna O’Donnell. Lib is determined to find out the truth behind Anna’s fast, but as she interacts with Anna’s family and Anna herself, the lines between superstition and reality become blurred. Lib sees how passionately the family and community believe that Anna is being sustained by God and no physical source is feeding her. What I absolutely love about this interplay is how the viewer is also confused about what kind of story this is.
Throughout the movie, the viewer doesn’t really know what kind of movie they are watching. It could very well be a classic historical piece, in which Lib finds out the source of Anna’s food and helps the Irish village answer their questions. But there is an element in which the viewer believes this might be a much darker and scarier tale, one in which there are dark spiritual forces at work and the story could turn into a horror film at any moment. We too are torn between our natural instinct to explain everything through natural causes, and the desire to accept the invitation at the beginning of the film to not only watch this movie but to believe it. Our limited minds are torn between skepticism and faith in the supernatural, leaving every viewer unsettled and unsure of their beliefs. Do we believe that supernatural forces could be at work here? Is Anna really being sustained by God or will Lib uncover a human answer? Does reality lie somewhere in the middle?
Not only does the film do a great job of covering philosophical questions, but it also is a wonderful work of art cinematically. It was almost all filmed on-location in the rural Irish countryside, and the elements of cold, rain, and mud are not hidden from the viewer. The costumes are realistically dirty and lacking any type of color, the directors were not trying to disguise impoverished Ireland as something it is not. There is a gray hue cast over almost every scene, which I very much appreciated as it added a lot to the filming and portrayed the story as darker and gloomier.
Director Sebastian Lelio specializes in movies that portray women and the dynamics in their minds, and he did an excellent job at showing the inner feelings that Lib was going through as she tried to take care of and meet the needs of everyone around her.
As a Christian critic of this movie, I have to stop and ponder my own feelings towards the depiction of Christianity, specifically Catholicism in this movie. A huge part of my uneasiness in the movie is a result of my true belief in the spiritual realm and darker forces in our world, which could have been plaguing this girl and causing her not to eat. However, my American bias makes me assume that this is not the most likely scenario, and I both assumed and hoped throughout the movie that it would end with a physical explanation, as that creates a slightly less scary storyline to my natural mind. Regardless of if the viewer chooses to believe in the scientific facts or the supernatural is not as important as the blatant fact that this movie does not portray Christianity in a good light, and that Christian viewers should be advised of this before going to see it.
“The Wonder” portrays the most extreme version of Christianity to paint it as controlling, dangerous and logic-defying. While Christianity may have been used as a weapon to control the young girl in this particular story, this is not the way that God designed it to be and is not representative of the God of the Bible, the God I believe in.
However, I think this movie is still a good watch as it calls us to believe a story, not just view it, and leaves the ending semi-open to viewer interpretation. It does not force you to believe in the supernatural or the natural aspect of your life. From the first scene of the movie, it invites the viewer to “believe” the story, not just view it. As a Christian, this is the same call that I believe God gives to all people; He invites us to believe, but we are not forced or tricked into believing in Him.
“The Wonder” is now available on Netflix
Caroline Stanton is a sophomore AYA English major. In her free time, she likes to read, hang out with friends and daydream about living in Europe.
Images courtesy of Netflix