Rated R for being both visually and tonally uncomfortable. This is one of those movies that borders on a specific kind of torture porn. Admittedly, there is a narrative and discussion to be had, but much of the film really teeters on the edge of being really uncomfortable. I know the book is worse, but I had a bunch of cringe moments in it. It also could be easily considered a blasphemous film. Oh, and I can't forget the sex scene in the film as well. Rated R.
DIRECTOR: Sebastian Lelio
I didn't write over Thanksgiving break. Is that a crime? I don't write on weekends either. I'll tell you what, though. I also didn't watch a lot of movies over Thanksgiving break either, so it is going to be interesting to see what I can write about this week. I had an amazing writing experience with Fletch Lives because I wrote in the morning, so I'm really trying to get my butt into gear and write while I can. I have to give a little background specifically on The Wonder. My wife read this book and told me all about it. It sounded really gross, but at least it kept my interest. We're about to sit down and watch a movie and I had gotten Bodies Bodies Bodies from the library. My wife says she has no interest in watching a horror movie and then chooses The Wonder. I have yet to see Bodies Bodies Bodies. But I can't imagine that it is more upsetting than watching The Wonder.
The Wonder is one of those movies that prides itself on making you uncomfortable. I kept comparing it during the movie to the A24 phenomenon that I might be over. (Ironically, Bodies Bodies Bodies, the movie I wanted to watch, is an A24 film, so color me continually hypocritical.) There's something beautiful in these movies. It treats the macabre as something cinematic and I kind of dig that. But it also begs the question, why am I watching this stuff? I hate to throw around the phrase "torture porn" because I don't like writing it on my blog, but there is a certain element to that with this movie. Now, I'm really forced to confront some real issues by throwing down this damning title. If I told you the plot of this film, that a girl was being tortured for the religious convictions of the town, and told you that you were going to watch her rot away from starvation, you could see my torture porn criticism. But this is another story by Emma Donoghue, the author of Room. Both this and Room are about the victimization of women. They both have a point to the abuse. That's where I don't like the word "porn" to be thrown around.
So you can look at this two ways. At this moment, I made the connection with the criticism that a lot of true crime gets. The Wonder kind of feels exploitative with the understanding that "we're telling important stories." With true crime, there's the noble platform. "These women were victimized. We're making sure that their voices are heard." That is noble. But most people don't watch or listen to true crime for the sake of honoring the victims. They are voyeurs. They want to know the upsetting nitty-gritty about what happened. It's about the shock value. The Wonder does an admirable job of fictionalizing a very real phenomenon: fasting saints. While the exact case of The Wonder does cover this trend of women being starved to death or secretly fed for the sake of uncovering a newfound saint, Anna as portrayed in the film is a fictional character. But would people watch The Wonder if it didn't promise to get at least a little bit gross? I think that Lelio, the director, would hope so. It doesn't get as gross as the book does. Donoghue seems actually be closer to Chuck Pahalniuk in terms of visceral description that Lelio does to Donoghue. But it still is pretty darn brutal. Heck, Lelio even adds some cutting and drug use to Lib to make it almost more upsetting.
But this leads to something completely undercooked. In an attempt to elevate the film beyond torture for two hours, Lelio adds this very intense fourth wall break. Lelio wants the film to say that, even though this is a period piece, the torture of women still happens today. I kind of love the idea of the message, but the quality of the message is lost in this film completely. It is easy to assume that "we were so backwards back then" when it comes to the torture of women. After all, The Crucible has the same situation. Writing stories as allegory is wise, but the intended audience often stays blind to the importance of the work in itself. With The Wonder, the film starts and ends with a Hollywood set. The film is initially narrated by the woman who plays Maggie Ryan. When we meet Ryan later in the film, she stares at the camera and reminds us that this is a movie, not a documentary. That's all fine and good. But it rarely keeps you in that Brechtian world of breaking the fourth wall. The biggest question I have is the choice of Maggie Ryan to act as the narrator. She's the element that continues to connect the world of the film to the world of the audience. Why Maggie? She's a servant in this story. Apparently, she plays a bigger (and very different) part in the book. But it almost is thrust upon Maggie? Is Maggie culpable for standing by? I mean, we see that Lib (is that a choice of a name, by the way. I might explore that in a minute) fights full force against a society that oppresses women and leaves the film unpaid and burned. What is Maggie supposed to do? There are stronger characters in the film?
Since I stumbled upon this, her name is Lib? It didn't at all strike me during the film, even though the movie kind of makes a big deal about "Lib" and "Nan" being their chosen names. The film rallies against the Catholic Church. As awful as mother comes across in the film, the strings of what causes mother and daughter to do these awful things is pegged directly at the Church. In the film, there's a need for Anna to be saintly. It actually creates this intriguing trap that forces Anna to continue to starve herself. But the fact that Elizabeth Wright chooses the name "Lib", which seems to be a stretch for Elizabeth is fascinating to me. I don't know if you've seen the Fox News crowd, but they love throwing that term around as an insult. The film being about science versus religion makes the name "Lib" a little bit on the nose. As much as Lib rallies to save Anna from starvation, she's fighting a patriarchy that is based on religion and conservative values. The sheer number of times that I heard the term "You just don't understand us" or some variation screams the faux oppression that we heard today.
In terms of quality, there's something there. I don't know if Lib's drug use is something that is absolutely necessary to the story. Maybe the parallel notion of the protagonist poisoning herself while Anna kills herself might have something to say. But I don't know if that is made directly clear. Perhaps Lelio is trying to "both sides" the argument. But that doesn't really work, now does it? After all, Lib is clearly the hero in this story. Science absolutely trounces religion in this story. Why give her the fault? And to tie back to the notion of "You just don't understand us", does the drug use imply that Lib knows more about these people than the movie cares to let on? Is her self-destruction the same as what Anna puts herself through? I don't know. But I digress. The quality! Man, Netflix movies are getting pretty. It's an absolutely gorgeous movie that is well acted. Again, I'll watch Florence Pugh in practically anything. She's such a talented actor and she holds the film together, considering how much of the movie has her in it.
I don't like the ending. There. I'll say it. My wife prepped me for a pretty great ending and I don't think that's true. In fact, I'm really glad I thought of this because Anna is unreasonably dumb. Okay, I get it. She's sheltered and the film really rides on the notion that the religious tell their children an alternate version of reality. But much of the movie absolutely needs Anna to make absurd choices. Okay, Anna really thinks that God is keeping her alive. Okay, I'm cool with that. It works for me. But she also is a human being who understands that the manna comes from her mother's mouth. That's not something l can see. The story completely hinges on the notion that Anna can't act like a person. To a certain extent, her indoctrination is so complete that it makes sense. But Anna's logic is to clean. Lib comes up with this idea to "kill Anna" spiritually to raise nine-year-old Nan. It's this great epiphany to her. But nothing up to that point scans. It is because, and this is a bit harsh, the entire film treats religious people as stupid and easily manipulated. To a certain extent, there is a certain level of manipulation. But when it comes to faith, these are concrete ideas, often leading to stubbornness. I want to go even a step further. Who is Nan when Anna is dead? I also don't see Nan as a potential solution to the problem. It's not like other people are holding Anna down and forcing her not to eat. (Quite the opposite, according to this film.) It's that she is doing penance for the incestual relationship she had with her brother. What part of faith allows for a whole person to have a do-over? The end kind of leaves us with this notion that Catholics would do anything and believe anything when the opposite is true. Catholics would probably do very little and believe only a very specific amount of things.
So the movie is fine, I guess. I didn't regret watching it for quality acting and cinematography. But while all the disparate elements of Room worked, there's a lot of forced storytelling happening with this one.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.