Movie Review: Wonderstruck evokes the simplicity of childhood curiosity and familial need
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Brian Selznick
Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds
Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.
Surely, Todd Haynes is one of our most curious directors, a man who exemplifies a curiosity in setting, genre, narrative, and drama. One takes a look at the filmography of Todd Haynes and even expresses their own curiousness; how can the director of Far from Heaven and Carol transition from films like Safe and onto the Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There? Haynes strikes a remarkable balance in his films, not one of them is like the other, and yet they are all very clearly his films, through and through; that’s the sign of a great director, the ability to maintain such visual grandeur and consistency with an underbelly of experimentation.
Then it should be appropriate that Wonderstruck is a very curious little film in its own right. Based on the book by Brian Selznick, who wrote the script here (his work was also adapted a few years earlier into Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), Wonderstruck is a rather simple film of childlike wonder (pun intended), less fantastical than its marketing has made it out to be. It’s a film that relishes in the curiosity of childhood, where a child’s most introspective question is simply, “Where do I belong?” And sometimes that destination, while rewarding, isn’t always the grandest. It’s the simplicity of such curiosity that makes Wonderstruck so authentically innocent, and a rather gorgeous family film.
Split between two timelines (New York, 1927 and the Midwest, 1977), Wonderstruck follows two youths on a search for familial reconnection; there’s Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl who travels to New York City to rekindle her relationship with her silent film star mother (Julianne Moore, in one of two roles here), and then there’s Ben (Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon fame) who too suffers his own unfortunate deafness and travels to New York in search for his unknown father. The back-and-forth narrative has garnered mixed responses from audiences already, and to be fair it is rather jarring and perhaps doesn’t always work, but there is purpose in Rose and Ben’s respective parallels, even if their lives are separated by fifty years of history. That purpose is in relation to both Rose and Ben’s childhood desires, an equally shared curiosity in needing to fill a familial void, something no child can fully bear, and instead of being majestically told with a constant narrative momentum, the film’s narrative remains gentle and simple, maintaining that most important sense of curiosity. And even better still, there is also pathos, mostly due to Fegley and Simmond’s respective performances; especially Simmonds, who is a revelation in the 1927 sequences.
Todd Haynes also chooses to depict each timeline with its own unique sense of place; the 1927 sequences evoke the look, feel, and sound of a 1920’s silent film (that’s a disservice, it is a silent film), whereas the 1977 sequences remain colorfully gritty and musically soulful, a truly urban aesthetic. Much like the film’s narrative, this choice could be seen as visually choppy, but yet again there is a thematic purpose, and a necessary one. Overlooking how gorgeous each segment is to behold, Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman use their crafts to demonstrate the importance of visual storytelling, as it relates to familial legacy; the film goes out of its way to symbolically show how simple objects close to us (a bookmark for instance) have their own stories and legacies within them, hence why museums play such a crucial part in this story. Silent films are the same way, as they have the ability to evoke so much by not needing to speak; Rose’s affection for this cinematic art goes beyond her mother’s silent acting career, but also in her only way to communicate without hearing (there’s a moment when she leaves a movie theater that is plastered with signs of the upcoming talkies, and it’s devastating knowing that this would be a regression for her). Filming Rose’s timeline exactly as that form of artistic expression she can actually understand, it adds a further sadness to the film entirely (Carter Burwell’s gorgeously moving score also helps, too).
The beauty of Wonderstruck is not in its visual grandness, but in the lack of grandeur within its soul. Haynes and Selznick understand that the authenticity of childhood curiosity is in its simplicity, but to children the small and the intimate can still feel like an out-of-this-world oddity (just as the late and great David Bowie sang in “Space Oddity”). That disparity, emulated by the film’s grand aesthetics juxtaposing its intimate narrative, is the heart of childhood innocence, seeing the big in the small, making the final collision of both timelines rather heartwarming. Sure, the final revelation is mostly a 10-minute exposition dump, but at least there’s a continued thematic intention, showing that what our eyes perceive is truly worth a thousand words (much of the ending is all told visually too).
The film’s narrative minimalism won’t work for everyone, and I must admit at first I wasn’t sure it worked for me. And even still, I can admit there are some flaws here; at one point, Ben meets a new friend named Jamie (Jaden Michael), and while their friendship is so beyond endearing, it leaves me wondering if it was necessary or not (or maybe I just don’t care). And yet I was still greatly moved by Wonderstruck, but more moved as I pondered on the film afterward, finding a way to sneak up on me like untold legacies do. It may be a family film, but this is still a Todd Haynes film, just one you can also take your children to. What better way to introduce your kids to Todd Haynes, especially if they’re curious like Rose and Ben?
Overall Grade: A-
Hear our podcast review on Episode 247.