WonderstruckReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/27/17 11:19:52
A few years ago, Martin Scorsese, pretty much the last filmmaker that one might expect to attempt to make a film aimed squarely at family audiences, managed to do just that with “Hugo,” an alternately moving, visually audacious and utterly delightful adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s story dealing with history, loss and the magic of silent cinema that viewers of all ages could embrace. Now, Todd Haynes, a filmmaker whose oeuvre (including “Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” “I’m Not There” and “Carol”) would hardly be considered family viewing in even the most liberal of households, has come up with “Wonderstruck,” another adaptation of a Selznick book that deals with many of the same themes as “Hugo,” albeit in different ways. While the end result is not quite as over-the-top wonderful as “Hugo” was, Haynes has nevertheless come up with an often-lovely work that adults and at least more thoughtful children can easily embrace while still feeling like a Todd Haynes project through and through.The film offers up two parallel storylines that are separated by a half-century. In one, set in 1977, a 12-year-old boy from Minnesota named Ben (Oakes Fegley) is reeling from the recent car crash death of his beloved mother (Michelle Williams, in a role fa smaller that the ads would suggest) and living with relatives when he stumbles across a bookmark advertising a store located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan that he is convinced is a clue to the identity of the father that he never knew. On a dark and stormy night, he tries to call the store for more information but before he can get through, a freak accident renders him completely deaf. Now feeling more alone than ever, Ben sneaks out of the hospital and hops a bus to New York City to find the store himself. What he discovers isn’t promising but it does lead to a trip to the nearby American Museum of Natural History, where he makes a friend in Jamie (Jaden Michael), an equally lonely child who spends his days hanging out at the museum—his father is a security guard—and knows the vast majority of its secrets. Before long, Ben makes another discovery about the bookstore and it winds up leading to a number of surprising revelations about who he is and his place in the world.
Alternating with Ben’s tale is a story set in 1927 involving Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who is about Ben’s age and who is also deaf, albeit for a much longer period of time. Living in a vast but cold house in Hoboken, Rose chafes under the thumb of her borderline dictatorial father (James Urbaniak) and spends her free time at the movies, where her condition makes no difference since the films are still silent. (In one of the most poignant moments, she leaves the theater and sees that they are about to retrofit it to show silent films. Her screen idol is the glamorous star of stage and screen Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and after another fight with her father, Rose runs off to New York in order to track her down at the theater where she is rehearsing a new play. When that doesn’t turn out as she had hoped, Rose slips off again to the American Museum of Natural History, where she wanders about the exhibits and runs into someone herself—the identity of that person and how all this ties into Ben’s story is best left for you to discover on your own.
Because it lacks the focus on issues of gender and sexuality that have informed most of his previous efforts, it is tempting to look at “Wonderstruck” as an anomaly in the Todd Haynes filmography but as it turns out, it actually fits in beautifully with his other works both thematically and stylistically. The running theme of the vast majority of his films involves people who feels out of place with their surroundings and who yearn for something more or to figure out exactly where they belong in the grand scheme of things—an aspiring glam-rock star (“Velvet Goldmine”), an affluent housewife who is literally sick of her surroundings (“Safe”), lovers whose romances are threatened by the social taboos of the eras in which they are set (“Far From Heaven,” “Carol”) and the various personae of a legendary musician who is all things to all people (“I’m Not There”). That is certainly the case here as both Ben and Rose, united by their deafness, strike out on their own to seek comfort in a world from which they feel alienated, even if they cannot necessarily articulate it as such. As they go on their separate adventures, we see them go along similar paths—even visiting similar exhibits at the museum—and even though there is no way that either one can possibly know that the other exists, the film offers up the comforting notion that even they are not truly alone. And as with his other films, Haynes enjoys evoking the specific eras in which they are set by deploying the chief cultural and stylistic tropes to place viewers into those specific times. Rose’s story, for example, employs a lot of flourishes reminiscent of the ear days of cinema, right down to creating an ersatz Lillian Mayhew joint for her to watch while Ben’s set in New York during the heady summer of 1977 and utilizes everything from a disco rendition of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on the soundtrack to the sudden arrival of one of the key events in the city during that period. In the hands of most filmmakers, such flourishes might have come across as kitschy or oppressive (as was the case with his last film, “Carol,” where the style ended up overwhelming the substance to such a degree that it was all but impossible to get involved with the story) but Haynes utilizes them in ways that allow them to ground the narrative in a particular place and time while also inspiring flights of fancy for a past era.
There are any number of delights to be had in “Wonderstruck.” The way that the film shifts from one narrative thread to the next is handled beautifully thanks to the efforts of editor Alfonso Goncalves and cinematographer Edward Lachman, whose skills are able to help smooth the segue between the two radically different periods. Selznick’s adaptation of his own book is also quite effective in the way that it takes the radical approach that he utilized on the page (where Ben’s story was told in words while Rose’s was conveyed via illustrations) and transposes it in a way that works cinematically while still retaining what made it special on the page. The performances by the young actors are also fairly extraordinary as well—Fegely builds upon the enormous promise that he showed last year in the surprisingly effective and serious-minded “Pete’s Dragon” remake (which shares a few similarities to this film) while Simmonds, who has been deaf since infancy in real life, is such a natural before the cameras that, even at a young age and without the benefit of conventional dialogue, she is able to convey an enormous array of emotions that would be the envy of most veteran performers. Although he has less screen time, Jaden Michael is really good as the friend that Ben acquires along the way and the angry confrontation that the two eventually have in the museum over a crucial piece of information will be instantly familiar to anyone who had a spat with a best friend as a child that may seem silly in hindsight but which felt like the end of the world at the time.The only time that “Wonderstruck” stumbles is towards the end as the two narrative strands begin to come together at last—while the actual dramatic climax is as powerful and heart-rending as one could possibly hope for, some of the steps that it takes to get to that point are a bit awkward as the various details are explained. However, the rest of the film is so glorious and visionary that those missteps hardly even register. “Wonderstruck” is destined to go on the same shelf as such other one-of-a-kind family films like “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Popeye” and the aforementioned “Hugo”—works that are as artistically satisfying as could be while still being able to appeal to kids as well as cineastes. Of course, in a time when feature-length explorations of emojis and “My Little Pony” rule the family film marketplace, an auteur-based all-ages entertainment will no doubt face the same sort of uphill battle to be seen as those other films that I mentioned. This may not be good news for “Wonderstruck” in the short term but this is not a flash-in-the-pan piece of kidsploitation meant to win a weekend at the box-office before serving as a DVD babysitter in a few months This is a film that is in it for the long haul and while the younger audience may not come to it in the kind of droves that it might have inspired if the Disney name and marketing machine had been behind it, it is quite likely that those who do get to see it will not only adore it but will one day pass it on to their own children as well.
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