Patron Pick – The Wonder

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

The Wonder (2022)
Written by Emma Donoghue, Sebastián Lelio, and Alice Birch
Directed by Sebastián Lelio

You will not be able to predict the opening shot of this movie if you haven’t heard about it already. But that first image immediately puts the viewer in a place where their expectations are gone. What you think this movie is and what it will be about are all flushed, creating an open canvas for your mind. Now you are just going with the picture, discovering it simultaneously as it happens before your eyes. We rarely get this sort of film anymore, especially from Netflix. By the end, you may not fully grasp what has happened, and that’s okay. The ideas in The Wonder are big & essential, but you need to sit with them for a while. That’s also not an experience many popular films are providing for their audiences, and we need it.

In 1862 Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh), an English nurse, is sent to an Irish village to study Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy). According to her family, Anna has been fasting for four months, and they are convinced she is in some direct communion with the Christian God. A council of local leaders wants Wright & a nun to take rotating shifts, constantly watching over Anna to see if she is sneaking food. The two watchers are told not to compare notes so that the observation will be as objective as possible. But this isn’t really what The Wonder is about. That’s the narrative framing, while the ideas in this movie are more considerable, far more important than asking if God is real. 

Some historical background is essential to understand to fully wrap your brain about what The Wonder wants from you. The Ireland that Wright arrives in is only a few years removed from the end of the brutal Potato Famine. While there have been jokes about “why didn’t the Irish just eat something else?” they are simply part of the vast American dismissal of history or attempts to understand it. The Potato Famine was caused by the English using swaths of Irish land to raise livestock for their consumption, increasingly limiting the space the Irish had in their own nation to grow food. 

Potatoes were one of the few crops that could grow even in non-optimal soil, so the Irish depended on them. However, a fungal blight wiped out most of their crops and persisted. The English had no interest in helping the Irish & proceeded to further brutalize them, using this period to seize more land in exchange for meager rations. One of the English heads of their colonization in India was put in charge of Ireland and didn’t hold back his thoughts. To him, the Irish were a ‘godless people’ and deserving of their suffering. It was fascism, plain and simple, supremacist ideology, prioritizing one people’s over-consumption in place of equal distribution of resources. An Englishwoman like Elizabeth Wright would be viewed with suspicion by these people; she was one of ‘them,’ the ones that hurt them.

The mystic takes a firm grip on this landscape of trauma, suffering, and death. When people have watched their society become devastated, particularly when it could have been avoided had the system in power taken other action, they become broken in the mind & soul. To destroy the English from the perspective of a single Irish family was an impossibility. They will mow you down without a second thought, so you lean into your spiritual beliefs. This is what Marx meant when he referred to religion as the “opiate of the masses,” not that spirituality has no place in a progressive society but rather that under current conditions, religion is a salve for the people, a means to escape the brutal reality they live under. Opium is not inherently bad; it was an essential painkiller used in the 19th century to ease the suffering of wounded soldiers in many instances. The abuse of opium is the problem, something made all too easy because of the addictive nature of opium. Our world is full of dangerous but valuable things, and the human species is still struggling with learning how to handle these things.

There is another layer in this picture; stepping back from what we see before our eyes, we realize we are watching a movie. This is an adaptation of a novel set in another period that has been recreated. But we believe what we see through the technical know-how of the crew, the decisions made by the direction, and the actors’ performances. But we know it isn’t true. These two ideas are positioned side by side in our minds and never in any peril of conflict. In many ways, the audience is like Anna’s parents, we believe, but we create filters that help ignore reality. The need to believe in the two hours of this picture is more important than our inclination to nitpick what feels natural and what doesn’t. Wright believes that by hurting herself every night before bed, she can in some way save the soul of her deceased child. From the outside, I know this is irrational, but to this woman in this time who has experienced this loss, the pain she causes herself is necessary. Anna’s fasting is eventually revealed to have been inspired by something similar, the need to believe that something horrible can be rectified if we suffer enough.

I’ve already seen people trying to jump to readings of the movie that suit their particular beliefs. They proclaim this is a movie supporting atheism, or it’s about finding a family, etc. Once again, The Wonder is attempting something more significant than this, a challenge when so much of the new media on streaming sites plays to the lowest common denominator. The Wonder is ultimately a movie about the power & danger of belief, not just religion. When you lose yourself in anything, there is a threat that you might not return. Obsession is potent, and ideologies are gripping. However, that doesn’t mean believing in nothing is the answer. Just like opium, belief & obsession serve a purpose in human development. As an autistic person, I can tell you I find immense joy in my fixations, but I am also developed enough in my understanding to know the totality of my life cannot be some niche interest in comics or even movies. 

The Wonder is also a film about the power of performance. In recent years from listening to highly talented actors talk about their work in interviews in reading about the art of performance, I have developed a far more complex appreciation of the craft. The best acting is shamanistic; it is the invocation of a spirit of sorts, the character on the page. When done right, the audience will experience a synthesis of person and script, which should feel effortless. Most people in the industry are performers; they are good at having a screen persona and memorizing & delivering their lines. But genuine acting is when you forget the performer; all you know is that character at that moment in that scene. All the methods offered by the acting gurus are potential means to reach that place, but there is no single path. Each actor has to find the technique that syncs with their spirit and connects with those truly unknowable things that live inside us. 

Anna is performing because she believes that in her performance, she can achieve nirvana and save a soul, her own and another’s. Wright is performing the role of a nurse, trying to be objective & scientific, which is good; it allows her to see through the veil. But she makes her greatest headway by letting herself feel her emotions and listening to Anna as a human being, as a projection of complicated feelings. This is essentially religion, a method to connect to something vaster than the experience we have every day. Acting & religion are two aspects of the same thing, the giving over of oneself to a bigger idea. Yet, we must return to the objective; we cannot always live in the mystic. The mystic loses its potency if we do that & we lose our minds as well. Living in the tension between these two things is how one becomes human, and it is the challenge we face from birth until death. 

The Wonder ends by intentionally breaking the performance, reminding the audience that we are home again. We took a long way around and learned something on that journey, but here we are back in the theater or our home. What remains are the emotions we felt. Most movies barely make you feel anything, so the minute you step into the blinding daylight outside the theater, your memory of it blows away like dust. But the great films, the resonating stories, you cannot shake them off. They live inside you and become a part of you. You cannot lose yourself to them forever because you have a life to live, responsibilities, and experiences. You should set aside moments to contemplate these things you felt when you released yourself from the objective, though. How do they inform you about your own life? What danger is there in following them too far? What danger is there in ignoring them? To wonder is to be in a place of awe & contemplation; it is quiet & evocative; it is to take in all aspects of something and measure them both by their totality and individuality. If you never wonder, you do not live.


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