MOVIE REVIEW: Wonderstruck




It is this writer’s confident opinion that talent elevates material.  Film audiences collectively celebrate with expressions of optimistic treatment like “in good hands” when certain established stars and masterful directors become attached to film projects, boosting potential quality.  If Daniel Day-Lewis came out of his new retirement tomorrow to play a Marvel superhero or a Bond villain or if Christopher Nolan signed up to make a Dora the Explorer film, you bet your ass even the snobbiest of cinephiles would be in the multiplex trough with the fanboys to see what the fuss was about.  Neither of those scenarios is all that likely but, kidding aside, the effect is amplified when the film choice is divergent from the big name’s normal modus operandi.

A perfect recent example of expertise applied to atypical subject matter was Martin Scorsese’s triumphant Hugo three years ago.  Unlike Steven Spielberg who had an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on his resume, the Scorsese we commonly associate with R-rated crime films championed the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s epic The Invention of Hugo Cabret in full 3D and PG glory, two firsts for the then-71-year-old great.  The results in applying Scorsese’s technical quality and evocative storytelling to a softer subject, one close to his film historian heart, were a brilliant success, leading to eleven Oscar nominations and five wins.  Scorsese elevated material that would have been overproduced studio fodder in lesser hands.

Perhaps it’s only fateful and fitting that another beloved Selznick novel, 2011’s Wonderstruck, brings out the best traits of another highly regarded filmmaker.  The Todd Haynes we honor from Carol, Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, Safe, and I’m Not There has always displayed a humane gentle side in his extremely provocative adult-centered work.  To see his meek tenderness, his prevailing theme of identity, and heavy sense of heart infused into a family film is nothing short of a beautiful revelation and one of the year's finest films.

Wonderstruck presents dual narratives with intertwining quests and destinies.  Pete’s Dragon breakout Oakes Fegley is Ben, a 12-year-old boy from rustic Gunflint Lake, Minnesota living with his aunt and uncle in 1977 after the untimely death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams, featured in flashbacks).  Ben has long wished to learn about his unknown and absent father and fears he may never learn the real story without Elaine.  Plagued by nightmares about wolves, he is an inquisitive soul and a collector of intriguing trinkets. One night, lightning strikes his childhood home while he is on the landline phone, causing new and jarring hearing loss.

LESSON #1: THE OLD “NO TELEPHONES IN A THUNDERSTORM” MYTH-- The fatality odds are low for this old wife’s tale and urban legend, especially now in the day-and-age of cellular phones, but the stats and facts confirm the myth.  Just ask Snopes and Mythbusters.  

Fifty years parallel to Ben is the black-and-white world of Hoboken, New Jersey’s Rose in 1927.  Played by the debuting Millicent Simmonds, she is a deaf girl from a well-off family who finds solace from her frustrated and ignorant father (James Urbaniak) creating homemade paper architectural sculptures and scrapbooking images of the matinee idol Lillian Mayhew (Haynes muse and Academy Award winner Julianne Moore).  The star of stage and screen during the advent of talkie films clearly has an inspiring impact on Rose.

Both timelines reach an impetus point where each child decides to run away from home to New York City.  Ben is going off a discovered bookmark clue that he believes was written by his father while Rose follows a newspaper advertisement for Lillian’s newest theatrical play.  The Big Apple for Rose is a pristine metropolis of autumn awe in 1927 and the polar opposite cesspool of dirty and seedy sweat in the summer of 1977 unfolds for Ben.  Their hindrances of hearing and paths of adventure end up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the American Museum of Natural History and its dioramas of taxidermy and artifacts of scientific discovery.

LESSON #2: SHARED CONNECTIONS AND DREAMS FOUND WITHIN LOCATIONS AND OBJECTS-- Next time you enter a building, a public place, or a natural site that is over a century or several centuries old, take a moment to remember the longevity of history.  It can be as simple as a park bench or an ocean vista lookout point, but you are very likely sharing a moment in a place that is or was a memorable touchstone for someone else who came before you.  Take the notion of “your” or “our” special place and add another layer of plurality.

LESSON #3: CHILDREN’S INSPIRATIONS AND YOUTHFUL CURIOSITY-- Equally nostalgic as a takeaway lesson, but Wonderstruck presents two child protagonists who are motivated, driven, and inspired by ideas and curiosities larger than superficial entertainment sources.  Both Rose and Ben are smart in the ways of their local worlds but learned enough as ardent readers to tread into the unknown city and hold their own.  Imagine that self-reliance in the kids of today.

The entire artful care to create Wonderstruck is lush and gorgeous with nooks and crannies of interesting touches and details.  Haynes efficient direction sways neatly between the two timelines with a finesse for ideal pacing in his most approachable film to date.  The satisfying converging flourish of the third act is utterly captivating.  Once again, consider the talent and how it flatters the material at hand.   

Matching the novel’s use of illustrations over words to convey its mystery, Edward Lachmann’s impeccable cinematography becomes soaringly important.  His lens steeps the film’s urban and museum location shooting in rich light, both in colorful and monochromatic arrays of sharpness.  Adding superb tone into different histories of New York City, the film’s music provides another key layer.  Lead by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the sleek songs of the 70s are mirrored by Carter Burwell’s lovely and symphonic musical score taking over the guidance and orchestration of the 1927 sequences.  Three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell’s costumes, culling from two eras, are another flawless adornment.  

Author Brian Selznick expertly adapted his own novel for the screen, condensing a rich 627-page tome into a spirited and poignant film fit for a running time just a shade under two hours.  Every morsel that remains and the additional sprinkles of star-crossed happenstance at work emphasize the strong undercurrents of personal attachment, retrospection, and conveyance all found in resourceful and lonely children.  In an enamoring and dialogue-less performance promoting a true hearing-impaired performer and not a pretender to portray the deaf experience, Millicent Simmonds’ slight smile across cherubic cheeks, resting atop growing composure, could melt cold lead.  Oakes Fegley adds a touching role of strength equal or better as a compliment to his winning lead in Pete’s Dragon from a year ago.  Presiding with pause and expression fit for each moment, Julianne Moore’s face alone could speak volumes when she is onscreen.  

Less sweeping than the 3D splendor of Hugo and mellower than last year’s heart-killing A Monster Calls, Haynes’ Wonderstruck still evokes true and impassioned power.  The film strides within a sensitive middle ground of approachable and praiseworthy quaintness in addressing difficult youthful challenges and emotions.  The effect is a grown-up experience audiences can, and should, appreciate compared to the mindless popcorn fluff and weightless distractions studio shovel into the PG marketplace.  If a new definition could be created for the term “wonderstruck,” it would read “rapt attention.”

LESSON #4: THE MAJESTY OF MUSEUMS-- This circles back a little to Lesson #2.  Both in the novel and in film form, Wonderstruck is a love letter to museums, their history, and their continuing presence as authentic experiences.  It starts with one person gathering a collection of interest, a “cabinet of wonder” if you will be that in a single room or an expansive complex, and deciding to share it with a larger audience.  In the present-day of Google, Wikipedia, content apps, and innumerable virtual experiences, there should always be a place for the tangible and real wonders right before our eyes in museums.  Calling them magical is not enough and calling them antiquated should be a compliment and not a slight.