Italian director Alice Rohrwacher returns with her sophomore feature, The Wonders, a delightful little film about a young girl named Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) who spends her summer helping her father run the families beekeeping business. They produce delicious honey at their ramshackle set-up at their home in the Tuscan countryside, far away from the city.
The business is run by her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), but it’s young Gelsomina who acts as the head of the family, trusted by her father to lead charge with much of the grunt work, and looked up to with a keen eye by her three young sisters. Things aren’t good out in the neighboring farming world, as the countryside is being burnt up by pesticides. Things aren’t much better for Gelsomina’s family. but they go about their business, but it’s not quite enough to get by. So Wolfgang takes in a troubled boy named Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), in order to receive some well-needed money from the government, as well as a son that he seems to long for.
One day Gelsomina notices that a glamorous TV show is holding a “Countryside Wonders” competition for the best traditional family business, offering a hefty cash prize and a fancy cruise to go along with it. Gelsomina is eager to join the competition, hoping that it will please her father. To her disappointment, he wants nothing to do with it. Their honey processing shop isn’t up to the industry standard, and has no desire to be on TV. The situation is ironic as they can use both the money and the publicity, but Wolfgang is firm in his stance against “Countryside Wonders.” Soon it’s up to Gelsomina to stand up for not only herself, but for the rest of her family and fight for them at all costs.
Rohrwacher, who penned the screenplay, takes much from her own life in the story, set in her hometown and based on her own knowledge on bees after working in honey production in her past. This personal touch is felt in the cinematography, which is as in touch with the land as much as its characters.
Young actress Maria Alexandra Lungu makes her debut in film as Gelsomina, and it’s as impressive as they come. She’s able to carry the film on her own, with a presence that speaks for itself. Then there’s the strong-willed and tough performance from Sam Louwyck, who plays a stubborn father who wants what’s best for his family, but also himself. He’s an interesting foil for his daughter, fighting to be the head of the family, without even knowing it.
Rohrwacher’s film is personal to her and it shows. It an easy-going, and somewhat casually paced, but it’s charming enough to find considerable pleasure. You can tell that it was a passion project. It’s an ode to the idea of loving and living off the land, in a world where it’s long been forgotten.