‘Wonderstruck’ delivers cinematic wonders with a less effective mystery
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Brian Selznick
Starring: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, and Michelle Williams
“Wonderstruck” – “Lighting can best be seen in the dark…Bright persons do best in bad circumstances.” – Erik Tanghe
In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley), a preteen boy living in Minnesota, runs into terrible circumstances, as a one in one hundred million chance event crashes down upon him. Actually, it flashes down upon him, as a bolt of lightning upends his life. The said event and the moments leading up to it then lead Ben on a journey, one towards New York City.
Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a preteen girl living in New Jersey, makes a mad dash for New York City as well. Rose wishes to catch a glance - and in fact, some attention - from a stage/screen actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), as she rehearses for a new part, somewhere on Broadway.
Although, these two kids share a similar journey, “Wonderstruck” slowly reveals - over 1 hour 57 minutes – that Ben and Rose have much more in common than initially meets the eye, which is the heart of the picture.
Director Todd Haynes certainly has an eye for embracing beautiful cinematography with “Carol” (2015) and “Far from Heaven” (2002) proudly standing his resume, and this movie is no different. Brian Selznick’s screenplay (based upon his book) alternates between the two time periods, and Haynes plays along with two dramatically distinct visuals of The Big Apple. Haynes films 1927 NYC in black and white, but sometimes it feels like warm grays and whites. In one particular scene, the bright lights of Time Square glow off the big screen, as their graceful rays seem to wrap the theatre audience with a gentle hug.
Rose carries an earnest heart, but does not frequently receive gentle parental hugs. Her stern, strict father constantly directs verbal assaults in her direction, and her absentee mother is not physically or emotionally available. In fact, adults rarely provide comfort for her, but in one moment on the bustling streets, a random man reaches out his hand to help her up from the sidewalk. As he gives Rose his undivided attention for a few seconds, she offers a rare smile, grateful for the kind gesture. Simmonds offers delicate gestures of humanity through every minute of screen time, as she delivers a beautiful, heartfelt performance as emotionally renascent as the radiant glows from the city.
She is a vulnerable kid in this massive place. With the odds stacked against her, yes, she can satisfy her childhood ids, but only with perseverance and lots of luck. You see, Rose is deaf. Simmonds shares the same disability with her in real life, and Haynes adapts to Rose by always presenting her view of the world with the audience. We – in turn – find her daily reality challenging and surprising. The audience and she still receive 100 percent of her environment’s emotional messaging, even though she only carries 80 percent of her sensory gifts. Credit Simmonds and Haynes for cinematically transporting us into Rose’s reality.
Even though Rose and Ben live in difficult realities, “Wonderstruck” operates in a world of mystical forces of fate. These same forces pull Ben towards New York City, and his urban ecosystem looks, feels and sounds dramatically different than Rose’s. Tight-fitting polyesters of oranges, yellows and purples dot and dance on the seas of rich, multicultural humanity. While Rose’s world might be rigid and cold, Ben’s is lively and chaotic. Both are intimidating and foreign to inexperienced children and are framed differently in their respective metropolitan glories.
Much of the film’s experience during the first hour contrasts their journeys, and the disparities and parallels effectively and cinematically offer intrigue. Some parallels are obvious. For instance, both kids engage with the same meteorite at the American Museum of Natural History. Other experiences are more subtle, and the film would require multiple viewings to process many of its thoughtful visuals into actual audience connections. On the other hand, the first hour’s pacing requires patience at times. One could easily view Haynes’s movie as a classroom exercise for film students to pause, rewind, replay, pause again, and dissect.
As the film comes together in the third act, the mystery between the two kids’ connection becomes resolved. Actually, rather quickly, but some of the smaller motivations – outside of their control - remain unclear and untied. Perhaps Selznick and Haynes are expressing that kids will never have total insight into their parents’ ultimate rationales, or that children just try their best to see their complete realities while searching in the dark, even when a bolt of lightning leads the way.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.