Wonderstruck, rated PG
Starring Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve never read any of author Brian Selznick’s literary works, but his talent as a storyteller has inspired two of my favorite children’s films of recent years: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and now Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck. Haynes, the director of modern masterpieces such as I’m Not There (2007), Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), is a visionary who, like Scorsese, has given us a children’s film overflowing with ideas and imagination – it’s a joy to behold.
The film brilliantly intercuts between two stories in two different time periods. The first story concerns Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy grieving over the death of his mother (Michelle Williams) in 1977 Minnesota. When he attempts to call a bookstore in New York City that may lead to his father (whom he has never met), lightning strikes his house and electrocutes him – and in the process, he loses his hearing. More determined than ever to find his father, he escapes from the local hospital and takes a bus to New York, where he wanders the streets, searching for the bookstore.
In the second story, a young deaf-mute girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), spends her days in the cinema, entranced by the silent movie actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). She escapes her strict father’s house to travel to New York in an attempt to find Lillian – who may hold a deeper significance to Rose than we previously thought. Have I mentioned that this part of the film is entirely silent and shot in black-and-white? It’s an unabashed ode to the silent film era, but more importantly, it helps us experience the world through Rose’s perspective.
From the very beginning, Wonderstruck is a wondrous mystery. Both Ben and Rose venture to New York to find someone, and their stories parallel and overlap in interesting ways. In the film’s most memorable, extended sequence, they both roam about the Museum of Natural History, where even more mysteries – and possibly answers – lurk. The exuberance and childlike wonder in this sequence is exhilarating – Haynes and his production design team beautifully recreate the look of the museum from two completely different eras – and it calls to mind many of the scenes in Hugo in which the young protagonists roam the streets and libraries of Paris, discovering art and cinema together.
Both Wonderstruck and Hugo are concerned with children solving personal mysteries that help them discover not only the secrets of their parents, but also lost art forms. Here in Wonderstruck, Ben discovers the beauty and majesty of museum curation and how physical objects preserve the memories of his parents. In Hugo, the titular protagonist discovers that an automaton left for him by his recently deceased father may unlock the mystery behind George Méliès, one of the original pioneers of cinema; eventually, Hugo sets out to restore Méliès’s work. Both Hugo and Wonderstruck are immensely concerned with preservation and remembrance.
The third act of Wonderstruck is told partially through dioramas, unraveling the story of Ben’s parents in a manner that evokes the spirit of museum displays. This also recalls the style of Haynes’s debut film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which the story of singer Karen Carpenter is told with dolls. There is so much creativity and inventiveness in every frame of this film – particularly in the borderline experimental way Haynes uses sensory details, sound design and music to create the experience of being unable to hear.
Part of the thrill of Wonderstruck is watching a story unfold that doesn’t fit neatly into an elevator pitch – Haynes and Selznick’s ideas are too interesting and far-reaching for that. The world would be a better place if there were more films for young people like this one, because these are the kinds of stories that cater to the imagination and wonder of children.
It’s worth noting that Wonderstruck was too much for the crowd at my New York screening – the picture was clearly too quiet, sophisticated and strange for the non-stop talkers of the world. Haynes has made a children’s film that requires patience and rewards curiosity – neither of which, admittedly, audiences have in abundance anymore. But if we expose children to this kind of art early enough, that can hopefully change. Wonderstruck has so much more to offer than cynical cash-grabs like The Emoji Movie. Please bring your kids to see this film – they will be the better for it.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.