The day-to-day life of a family that keeps bees in Italy is the subject of the mostly naturalistic “The Wonders.” (Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories)

‘Wonders’ a lovely tale about a beekeeping family

Combining the universal coming-of-age experience with terrifically unusual specifics, the Italian drama “The Wonders” is a low-key charmer.

Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s style might be described as naturalistic with moments of Fellini. The movie, set in the Tuscan countryside, is, on one level, the latest adolescent-awakening tale featuring a pivotal summer.

But Rohrwacher (“Corpo Celeste”) is less interested in traumatic journeys than in the joys and surprises in the commonplace in the story, which involves a beekeeping family with a run-down farmhouse and hippie ideals.

German patriarch Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) condemns modernization as a threat to the purity of his land-focused way of life, and his stubbornness has kept the family living largely in isolation.

He and his underseen Italian wife, Angelina (Alba Rohrwacher), have four daughters. Levelheaded Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest at about 12, oversees the family’s honey-making business, and longs for more connection with the outside world.

Opportunity soon arises in two forms.

First, a reality-TV crew arrives, filming a promo for a show hosted by a woman who looks like a ridiculously costumed Monica Bellucci — and turns out to be literally that.

With her feathered headdress and faux white braids, Bellucci’s character, Milly, mesmerizes Gelsomina. When she learns that Milly’s producers are seeking traditional food-producing families for a show, Gelsomina, defying her father, submits an application.

Troubled 14-year-old Martin (Luis Huilca), meanwhile, has joined the family to work as a farmhand. Martin speaks little but whistles like a songbird. Wolfgang begins treating Martin, who also is German, like the son he never had.

“The Wonders” doesn’t have much in the way of crescendo or suspense. (Another director would have vigorously presented, for example, a honey-lab mishap.)

Also, the plot borders on slight, and backstories — the relationship of a household member named Coco (Sabine Timoteo) to the family receives no explanation — can be frustratingly absent.

But Rohrwacher, who grew up in an environment like Gelsomina’s (she has said that her young heroine was inspired by her sister, who plays Angelina), excels with mood and setting, immersing viewers in the old-style world of bees and honey, which Gelsomina presides over with a winning blend of know-how and TLC.

Rohrwacher doesn’t yank characters around with plot contrivances. Gelsomina’s daily grind, which includes pulling bee stingers out of her father’s neck, sparkles with novelty. Rohrwacher also captures the odd but meaningful nature of families, and how people feel a primal need to belong.

Like the movie’s tone, the performances also are accessible and natural.

An emerging talent, Rohrwacher occasionally distinguishes herself from the realists she seems inspired by, such as the Dardenne brothers, by seasoning her movie with whimsy. A camel seems to have walked in from the Jordanian drama “Theeb,” playing in the cinema next door.

REVIEW
The Wonders
Three stars
Starring: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo
Written and directed by: Alice Rohrwacher
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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