Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Cory Michael Smith, Damian Young
Director Todd Haynes’ previous films have tackled some heavy adult subjects involving identity and sexuality in the 1950s (Carol, Far From Heaven), rock icons (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), and a remake of a Joan Crawford classic (Mildred Pierce). With Wonderstruck, he has made his first film catered to all audiences. That’s not to say it’s a straight up kids movie, but one that parents and their children will no doubt be moved and inspired by, much like I was. Haynes had me hooked from the beginning with his use of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which captures that sense of leaving the familiar for an unknown adventure that lies ahead. Author Brian Selznick has adapted the screenplay from his book of the same name and tells his story through two timelines. We’re first introduced to a young boy in Gunflint, MN in 1977. Ben (Fegley) is mourning the death of his mother (Williams), which has now made the papers as she was a beloved librarian in their small town. To make matters more complicated, Ben grew up never knowing his father. He pushed for information about him from his mother, but she kept him a secret. He discovers a book in her possession called “Wonderstruck” all about the how museums are run and curated. He dives in during the middle of a thunderstorm and finds a bookmark for a New York City bookstore. He attempts to call the store only to be struck by lightning and electrocuted. The metaphor for lightning striking should not go unnoticed. Now feeling alone and suddenly deaf, he decides to leave his relatives and sneak off to New York City hoping to find information about his father.
The other storyline originates in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927 with a young deaf girl named Rose (Simmonds). She’s the same age as Ben and is obsessed with silent film star Lillian Mayhew, played by Julianne Moore who modeled the character after Lillian Gish. Rose grows frustrated with her isolated home life and the lack of connection she has with her father. Much like Ben, she ventures out to New York City hoping to track down her favorite actress. For Ben and Rose, New York City represents a city of new beginnings, and hopefully, the answers they are looking for in life.
Todd Haynes interweaves both story lines together never confusing the audience in his approach. He recreates the old silent film era for the 1927 scenes keeping them black and white, dialogue free, and set to another lush score by Carter Burwell (Carol, Fargo). These scenes are without a doubt a passionate ode from Haynes to this era of cinema. There’s liveliness and wonder at the hands of young actress Millicent Simmonds who is deaf and making a stunning film debut. Simmonds lures you in to the nervousness that comes with the hustle and bustle of the big city. Haynes drastically counters this by infusing the 1977 scenes with yellow and orange filters getting the audience into the groovy decade. It looks naturally authentic without feeling manufactured like period films (see Marshall) often do. He gets an impressive performance from Oakes Fegley (Pete’s Dragon) as Ben. Julianne Moore is the only actor to appear in both timeframes playing the 1927 silent film diva and then appearing as a museum visitor in the 1977 scenes. This is the fourth collaboration between Haynes and Moore following Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), and I’m Not There (2007).
Much like Brian Selznick’s other book, which was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Wonderstruck plays smart with its audience. The film’s leads are children and it’s geared to that age demographic but it never relies on cheap jokes or potty humor to keep them entertained like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Despicable Me movies. Instead, Haynes brings Selznick’s world to life with the visionary eye he always brings to any of his films regardless of the tone or subject matter. There’s a bit of The NeverEnding Story here with the family themes and then with Ben getting carried away in his book in the middle of a thunderstorm. Wonderstruck seamlessly floats through a variety of genres. There is the silent film aspect, but we switch back and forth to the adventure story as we watch both kids making their way through the big city for the first time. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Ed Lachman’s cinematography captures their point of view as they look up at the grown-ups and tall buildings that surround them. Part of Ben’s story involves meeting a new friend at the museum he visits. He’s introduced to secret hiding places where they can hide and explore the museum without supervision. There’s that danger of possibly getting caught and kicked out. As the two storylines start to merge together, it becomes a heart wrenching drama as Ben starts getting the answers he needs about his family with the hope and understanding of what it means to be deaf.
Wonderstruck examines that age during adolescence that brings forth questions when you start to feel different than everyone else your age. Younger viewers will hopefully latch onto Ben and Rose’s journey of finding where they belong in life. Todd Haynes asks kids to use their imagination and pay attention to what Ben and Rose are going through. There are a few impressive set pieces throughout that should widen the eyes of its target audience. Haynes is a gifted storyteller and filmmaker. There’s a musicality to it as he never lets it get muddled from one transition to the next. It all culminates in a sentimental ending much like you would find in a Steven Spielberg film. These are the kinds of movies I want to show to my children when they are of age. They have wonder, excitement, mystery, and hopefully, spark a dialogue about how they’re feeling.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Another winner for Todd Haynes
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS