LONDON: The opening few moments of “The Wonder” are a discombobulating experience – before the movie even gets going, director Sebastián Lelio hits viewers with a bizarre, fourth-wall-breaking curveball: This might well be just a story, but the characters in it believe in it wholeheartedly.
It’s a peculiar — not to mention entirely unnecessary — sort of disclaimer. It doesn’t, as you might expect, kickstart a series of knowing, reflexive nods throughout the film, nor does it specifically frame (or reframe) viewer expectations. It’s just a rather odd way to start the film.
And it’s unnecessary because “The Wonder” is unsettling and atmospheric enough on its own merits, and all the more captivating because of that.
Florence Pugh stars as Lib Wright, a Nightingale nurse sent to a small Irish village to ascertain the veracity of an apparently miraculous event. Teenager Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) claims to have not eaten for four months, surviving (her devout family say) on manna from heaven. Lib is tasked with observing the girl for two weeks, to determine if Anna represents a genuine miracle, or simply something far more terrestrial. Her investigations put Lib in conflict with Anna’s parents and the local community, all of whom seem desperate to believe in the miracle rather than to accept a more mundane explanation.
Pugh is at her direct, forceful best, turning in a bullish performance that sees her square off against the village, the church, the newspapers, and everybody in between. She is simply spellbinding, serving as a welcome anchoring presence as Lelio turns up the uncanny disconcerting intensity.
“The Wonder” crackles with slow-burning frustration and impotent energy. At its heart, the movie is a simple pondering of fact versus faith — a mystery simply waiting to be solved. But thanks to Lelio’s individualistic touch (those fourth-wall dalliances aside) and Pugh’s magnetism, “The Wonder” is an unsettling, intense experience that won’t be quickly forgotten.