Netflix’s The Wonder out today is a fictional retelling of the “Fasting Girls” phenomenon that occurred during the Victorian era. In several places across the globe, young girls claimed they did not need to eat or drink. They claimed God was keeping them healthy and alive despite not consuming anything. Most of these cases were debunked during the time, but the horror of what these girls did to themselves either out of misguided faith or obligation remains. In Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, Florence Pugh’s Lib is tasked with watching Anna, a nine-year-old girl in Ireland who claims to have not eaten in four months.
Anna’s family and community have become celebrities of sorts, and the town council, made up of four men, hires Lib, an English nurse, and Sister Michael to watch Anna continuously in eight-hour shifts. They are to remain impartial and not have any communication with one another. At the end of fourteen days, they will report their independent findings. The council is primarily hoping to prove Anna is a miracle. The fact that a young child’s life is at stake is less important to most of them.
Over the course of the two weeks, Lib first witnesses Anna being visited by countless people who think she is touched by God. They give money to see Anna. Anna also is hugged and kissed by her family each morning and evening. After watching and searching Anna’s room, Lib finds nothing and cuts off contact with everyone to ensure no one is secretly giving her food. Shortly after, Anna begins to become very weak and sick. As Lib watches her slowly waste away, she gets more desperate to find the truth. Finally, after attempting to force-feed her, Lib apologizes and begins to get answers. Here’s everything you need to know about Lib, Anna, caged birds, and Kitty’s story in The Wonder.
Why won’t Anna eat?
Anna stopped eating because her brother died, and she thought she was responsible. She admits to Lib that her brother shared double love with her, meaning he loved her as a brother and as a husband. Shortly after beginning their relationship, he became sick and died. Their parents blamed Anna and to hide the incest and enable his soul to enter Heaven. She was told only to eat manna from Heaven.
The problem is the manna was not holy. It was chewed food Anna’s mother passed to her through her mouth when she was kissing her each morning and night. That small amount of food was enough to keep her alive. After Lib made her family stay away, her parents kept up the pressure to pretend not to need food. The lock of her brother’s hair that Lib finds early on is as much an essential memento as it is a reminder for Anna to perform her family duty at all costs.
The ending of The Wonder
At the end of the gorgeous film, Lib convinces Anna, who is dying right in front of her, that she can die as Anna saving her brother and be reborn as Nan to have a life of her own. Nan is the name Anna and Lib talk about when they first got to know each other. Anna says she could be anyone, as Nan. While the family is away at Mass, Lib takes Anna to the Holy Well and tells her to close her eyes. She tells Anna when she wakes up; she will be Nan. Anna closes her eyes and awakens as Nan. Lib’s journalist friend Will then picks her up and takes her away to safety.
Lib returns to the O’Donnell’s house, where she sets fire to everything to cover her tracks. She tells the council that Anna died, and in her panic to bring her back to life, a lantern was tipped over, causing the massive fire. They accept it without a body to dispel her story and their self-interest in the forefront of their minds. She is released and returns home. The O’Donnells have no proof that their dangerous actions were miraculous, and Lib is not prosecuted. We next see Lib, Will, and Anna, now going by Nan, boarding a ship to Australia together. Anna/Nan is reluctantly eating with a large table of fellow travelers.
What do Kitty’s fourth wall breaks mean?
The Wonder has several fourth wall breaks throughout the film. Two critical ones bookend the film, but there are several other breaks and events, all from Kitty O’Donnell. The seemingly innocent, although somber, breaks reveal the devastating truth. Kitty initially warns us that “we are nothing without stories.” They are the things we tell ourselves to assuage our guilt or our fear. They provide hope and reason in chaos and sometimes hide dark truths.
It’s better to believe Anna didn’t die. This story is easier to accept than what happened to many of the real “Fasting Girls.” It would destroy Lib to know she watched as this poor child starved herself to death. For Kitty, who lived in that house, it was a way to reframe the trauma of the event. She couldn’t read at the beginning of The Wonder. She learned as the film went on. Words have power, and for her, they were the source of her salvation. She could tell Anna’s story and allow the girl to live, if only in fiction. It is the ending we all wanted instead of the one that really happened.
Anna was far too sick and weak to be hauled away by Will and nursed back to health. She died, and Nan was never born in her place. It was a simple story told to soothe the soul. Kitty is the narrator, a participant, and possibly the story’s creator. In the closing seconds, as the camera pulls back from Anna/Nan eating at the table, Kitty again looks right at the camera. She says, “In, out. In, out.” It is a reference to the caged bird symbol throughout the film.
Kitty is caged by her ignorance. Learning to read allows her the chance to escape but also makes it even more apparent how stuck she is. Her parent’s feverish beliefs imprisoned Anna. Will’s gift, the thaumatrope, showed a bird in a cage and free. Both are true, depending on the viewer. The same is true of Anna. She is alive with Lib and dead, having succumbed to starvation. Again, it just depends on the listener.
The story allows Lib to be a hero and mother after losing her own child and Anna to be saved. The fact that the account exists through Kitty, though, means it is all fiction. This is Kitty’s story, not Lib’s or Anna’s, and Kitty needed to keep their legacy intact while absolving herself and the parents of Anna’s death. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in this dual punch of bleak sorrow and hopeful optimism. The Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.