Mark Reviews Movies

Wonderstruck

WONDERSTRUCK

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Morgan Turner, Amy Hargreaves, Sawyer Nunes, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Rauel Torres, Lauren Ridloff, John Boyd

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 10/20/17 (limited); 10/27/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 26, 2017

Two children, in two distinct places and at two different points in time, feel like outcasts within their respective families. Wonderstruck follows the kids as they try to find something—anything—with which to connect. That the stories ultimately connect in a very tangible way is inevitable, but the beauty of director Todd Haynes' film is in its intangible connections. There are overwhelming moments here that are achieved through what's unspoken, how the children's stories play off each other, the atmosphere of loneliness and isolation that the film creates, and the way the film celebrates the sense of intellectual curiosity of its main characters.

It's also an impressive stylistic exercise, in the way that Haynes, cinematographer Edward Lachman, and the film's team of designers faithfully reconstruct the looks of the story's two time periods, as well as recreating the cinematic modes of those eras. One story, set in the 1920s, plays like a silent film, for reasons that go beyond simple homage. The other tale, set 50 years later in the 1970s, has the oversaturated look of movies of the era, as well as hints of a funk-infused score from Carter Burwell, whose work here is that of a musical chameleon—adapting recognizable themes for each era and carefully selecting moments in which the music of the past carries over into the future.

The first kid is Ben (Oakes Fegley), who, in 1977, lives on the outskirts of a small town in Minnesota near one of that states many lakes. He's a collector, keeping all of his trinkets on organized shelves in his room, or at least he did at one point. His mother (played by Michelle Williams) has died in a car accident, so he lives with his aunt (played by Amy Hargreaves) and two older cousins (played by Morgan Turner and Sawyer Nunes). Young Ben has two dreams: one of being chased by wolves in the woods near his home and other of his mother, listening to David Bowie, smoking in her bedroom, and evading questions about Ben's father, whom he cannot remember meeting—if he ever did—and about whom he knows nothing.

The other child is Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who, in 1927, lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, where she can see the buildings of New York City across the river outside her bedroom window. She makes models of the buildings out of paper and keeps a scrapbook of movie stars. Her father (played by James Urbaniak) is a strict man, although young Rose often finds her way into town to local movie theater, where she watches a melodrama starring Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and seems apathetic to the announcement that the theater will be renovated for the talkies.

There's a good reason for the apathy about a sound system and the story's complete silence: Rose is deaf. In one of those strange twists of fate, Ben becomes mostly deaf, too, after lightning strikes a telephone pole while he's on the phone. He's trying to call a book store in New York City, after finding a mysterious book about an old museum exhibit among his mother's things. The bookmark has a handwritten note on it: to his mother from a man named Danny, promising that he'll wait for her and expressing his love for her.

Surely, this man is his father, so he goes to New York to find the book store and, hopefully, news about the man. In the past, Rose sets off for the city on her own, too, hoping to find a member of her family who will raise her with more care than her father.

It is a simple tale—two tales, actually—presented with clarity and in the respective mode of each period. Ben wanders the streets of a city that are grimy and filled with potential danger. Fifty years earlier, Rose walks down the same streets of the same city, which is filled with crowds and possesses the awe-worthy sights of those tall buildings that she could see from her window—only now, she has to look up to see them. There are complications, of course, as Ben discovers that the book store is closed and Rose meets her mother, who has little time or patience for her daughter. By yet another twist of fate, the two kids make their separate ways to the American Museum of Natural History, where Ben finds a new friend named Jamie (Jaden Michael), who writes to Ben on a notepad (and, in one heartbreaking moment, doesn't write what Ben can't hear), and Rose looks for her older brother.

From here, the film takes a break from its simple plot and simply follows the two children as they make their way through the museum. There's something profound in the act of exploration, because the kids are curious in their own ways.

Haynes embraces the idea that the best adventure a smart child could have is to survey a museum without a chaperone—to find the major exhibits and to seek out the hidden spaces. Both Rose and Ben find themselves in front of a meteorite, and the film cuts between the two of them, reaching out to touch the surface of an object that once traveled through space. They are touching the unknown, and they're also, in a way, reaching out for each other—across a gulf of time but not of space. In that moment, we might not know how these two characters are connected in a direct way, but there's no escaping the emotional and intellectual bond they share in this moment.

It's difficult to express just how effective and affecting such moments are. They're present throughout the film, especially as the past catches up to the future and then overtakes it, in a virtuoso sequence of stop-motion animation involving models, drawings, and characters represented by pictures within lockets. There's a lot to admire about the way Wonderstruck recreates the past, but there's more to admire in how the film's stylistic foundation serves an emotionally grounded mystery about love—the kind that we could know if we just went looking for it.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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