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Wonderstruck Movie Review

Wonderstruck (2017) movie poster Wonderstruck

Theatrical Release: October 20, 2017 / Running Time: 117 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Todd Haynes / Writer: Brian Selznick (book & screenplay)

Cast: Oakes Fegley (Ben Wilson), Julianne Moore (Rose, Lillian Mayhew), Michelle Williams (Elaine Wilson), Millicent Simmonds (Rose Kincaid), Jaden Michael (Jamie), Tom Noonan (Walter), Cory Michael Smith (Walter), Damian Young (Otto - Museum Guard), Lilianne Rojek (Florence), Amy Hargreaves (Aunt Jenny), James Urbaniak (Dr. Kincaid)


The first time a Brian Selznick book was adapted for the big screen, we got Martin Scorsese's Hugo, one of the most enchanting films of this century. Six falls later, we get Wonderstruck, which sees Selznick turning his illustration-heavy 600-page 2011 novel into his first screenplay.

The ambitious text that bounced between two distinct stories is now an ambitious film in the capable but unlikely hands of Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol), who makes this more of an art film than a family film, even compared to Scorsese's highly decorated commercial underperformer.

Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Jamie (Jaden Michael) use a flashlight to explore the American Museum of Natural History after dark in "Wonderstruck."

Wonderstruck opens in Gunflint, Minnesota in the year 1977. There, Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete in last year's Pete's Dragon reimagining) has lost his mother (a scarce Michelle Williams) and never known his father. Lightning strikes when he is on the phone and he suffers the consequences, losing his hearing. The other narrative involves Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927.

There is no confusing one timeline for the other. Aside from the obvious differences in fashions of settings fifty years apart, Haynes presents Rose's story like a black and white silent film without intertitles, whereas Ben's life has color and sound. Still, the parallels are clear. Both hearing-impaired youths run off to New York City where they are each drawn to the
American Museum of Natural History. Rose is in pursuit of silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who has taken to the stage amidst the advent of sound film. Meanwhile, Ben is searching for his unknown father, hoping a bookstore will lead him there. Instead, he is befriended by Jamie (Jaden Michael), the friendly son of a museum employee.

Wonderstruck does an admirable job of moving between these two plots nimbly and without overselling the commonalities. There's a reason these two seemingly separate stories are being told in this way and by the film's conclusion, you will understand why. It's also impressive that Selznick and Haynes have committed to this approach, particularly letting substantial stretches of the movie playing in black and white with only score on the soundtrack. Obviously, The Artist, Hugo's kindred principal 2011 Oscar contender, embraced silent cinema even more extensively and did quite well for itself. You have to imagine that Wonderstruck is a harder sell in this form, but it's also a richer, more unique, and more fulfilling experience.

Scenes set in 1927 center on Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf New Jersey girl who runs away to New York to find her actress mother. Julianne Moore plays roles in both timelines.

While Scorsese's attraction to Hugo was easy to understand, even with how far outside his wheelhouse it was, Haynes' attachment to this project is less obvious. But it allows him to reteam with Julianne Moore yet again and it gives him an opportunity to recreate not one but two period settings at length. Wonderstruck is spectacular on the period recreation front. For a film you wouldn't expect a huge budget from, no shortcuts have been taken when it comes to the immersive production design. Wonderstruck excels
at both conveying the grimy multicultural Manhattan of the '70s and the stiff, outmoded one of the '20s. From sidewalks full of extras to streets full of period cars, this is one of the most transportative films of this or really any year. Considering all the opportunities for goofs, one can cut some slack over the fact that Moore's silent star (the smaller of two roles she holds here) doesn't look period accurate and her movies are inexplicably shown in a ratio wider than was the standard.

Whether you're judging it as a family film or just art cinema, Wonderstruck succeeds with enough substance to match its considerable style. That it stars children and sports a PG rating probably hurts its awards season chances, as does the fact that it will likely struggle to find an audience, as many acclaimed family films do (even Hugo). If awards organizations are able to take it as seriously as they took Hugo, then at the very least, this should be competing for a number of technical honors, including score, costume design, production design, and cinematography.

Related Reviews:
Adapted from Brian Selznick: Hugo | Directed by Todd Haynes: Carol
Now in Theaters: The Florida Project Goodbye Christopher Robin Blade Runner 2049 Only the Brave Battle of the Sexes
Oakes Fegley: Pete's Dragon | Julianne Moore: Still Alice Vanya on 42nd Street The Hunger Games: 4-Movie Collection
Michelle Williams: Oz the Great and Powerful Manchester by the Sea

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Reviewed October 27, 2017.

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