WONDERSTRUCK (Movie Review)

wonderstruck_girl
***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for thematic elements and smoking)
Released: October 20, 2017 in limited release; November 10 wider
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmons, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak, Corey Michael Smith

When a movie based on a book relies on so few words, and successfully so, it’s a sure sign that the adaptation has been entrusted to the right filmmaker.

But then that’s exactly the kind of director that author Brian Selznick attracts. A writer of acclaimed, award-winning children’s novels, Selznick’s previous book-to-screen was Hugo, helmed by none other than Martin Scorsese.

Now it’s Todd Haynes and Wonderstruck.

In films like Carol and Far From Heaven, Haynes has established a meticulous eye for period detail. Wonderstruck is a tale set in two periods, 1927 and 1977. Suffice it to say, this is a perfect marriage of material and artist. The end result is a film that lives up to its name, but one that achieves its sense of awe through a moving melancholy.

For parents who are cinephiles, who want to impart a love of film to their children, to help them see it as more than an entertainment but as an art form, you couldn’t ask for a better experience to start with than Wonderstruck.

Ben lives in 1977. Rose in 1927. He’s in Minnesota, she’s in New Jersey. Both are twelve-years-old. Separated by fifty years, their stories unfold in parallel, not connected directly but cosmically. In each, Ben and Rose both look up to the stars, experience storms, and are absent a parent, but these similarities are not identical. Their stars, storms, and losses take form in different ways.

The one exact thing they share (eventually): the same disability. That, and the need to embark on a journey to the same place, to fill the same void.

Haynes goes back and forth between each, transitioning on moments that mirror each other. It’s an absorbing structure, and done with subtle grace.

He employs two aesthetics as well, reflecting each era’s cinematic form: 1977 is visualized in earthy tones and a faint sepia treatment, and 1927 is in silent black-and-white. It’s a smart artistic choice that also makes it easier to move fluidly between the two narratives.

Both are shot on 16mm film, and that grain adds another layer of 20th Century texture. Animation sequences in stop motion miniature that come late in the film are a particular highlight. Like Spielberg and Fincher, Haynes works with many of the same collaborators across multiple films – cinematographer, editor, composer, and costume designer – helping secure his elegant auteur signature.

The two stories aren’t quite as equally effective, with Rose’s resonating more deeply. There’s something potent in what Haynes evokes, and how, through the silent medium, and it’s all anchored by newcomer Millicent Simmons. She has a purity that your heart opens up and goes out to, especially when hopes and dreams appear to be met but are dashed by realities.

Oakes Fegley is good as Ben, but his anger and pain isn’t as nuanced as Simmons’. Plus, the conflict between him and a new friend is often contrived or forced, whereas for Rose its organic and surprising.

Ben’s narrative is more plot driven by a mystery, Rose’s more emotional and raw, and Julianne Moore shines in separate dual roles that crossover into both (she especially strikes an iconic look for a Silent Era actress, with the acting chops to boot).

Still, while Rose’s story is more compelling (I’d love to see it as its own movie short), Ben’s is hardly a distraction. It’s beautifully told, and serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Rose’s. It also uses dialogue but primarily at the beginning and end, going wordless for a long stretch in the middle.

Through both, Haynes reveals things patiently, giving those reveals power. There are turns you can’t predict but then others that you see coming. For the latter, Haynes plays to those expectations intentionally. Like Hitchcock, he creates tension by giving us insight that the characters lack – not obviously, but through suggestion – and that pulls us in.

The two stories never intersect…until they do. It happens in a way I wasn’t expecting, but in a stroke of genius so perfect it couldn’t have been any other. When the two become one, the moment is tender and powerful, then crescendos to a truly satisfying, poignant payoff.

Wonderstruck earns our tears and our feels, the kind that come from a burden or pain being lifted from the soul, even if in bittersweet closure.

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