‘Wonderstruck’ Presents A Wondrous Journey (Movie Review)

There is always a joy in seeing narrative puzzle pieces lock into place. Wonderstruck is that sort of film. It presents such a specific depiction of its setting that a viewer can be instantly locked in with the characters we are following and only later realize the full story has evaded us. Relying on a dual narrative with some connection, this is a film that opens as a drama, only to reveal it’s an adventure. Many classical elements make it a visual joy, but there is an overriding sweetness that urges viewers of all ages to push back any cynical thoughts and give in to the mystery within.

The beginning of the film introduces us to Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds). Set in 1927 and 1977, the two exist 50 years apart. Eventually, both run away from home to New York City. Rose is in search for her idol, the silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Ben has been recently orphaned and now searches for his unknown father. Once in New York, the two run into various characters who may be able to help them in their quests, but the question remains, what is it that connects these two stories?

I only knew a few things going into Wonderstruck and upon watching the film, I couldn’t shake the feeling of how this story seemed to fall in line with Hugo. To my surprise, the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick, was, in fact, the man who authored the Wonderstruck novel and this film’s screenplay.

That was a pleasant realization, but nothing that could outdo the fascination I had with where this film’s story was going and how discoveries were made throughout. Both on the part of the character and audience, Wonderstruck has a way of defying certain expectations due to sudden shifts in focus. This mainly comes from an aspect that is a part of both characters. Ben and Rose are deaf. Because of this, the film finds a way to adapt, utilizing sound and score very specifically in both of the film’s timelines.

Composer Carter Burwell plays a significant role in this, as Wonderstruck does a lot to create two distinct time periods by way of the score, among other elements. Rose’s timeline works as a silent film regarding style, with a near-continuous soundtrack. Ben’s timeline has a lot of grittiness present, which is fitting for a 70s-based setting, even if we are dealing with children. It’s all enough to challenge cinematographer Edward Lachman to put together a film emphasizes this unique journey.

Director Todd Haynes has focused his filmmaking career on films challenging personal identity. It has led to a postmodern conception of what many rightly strive for. Understandable, it makes Haynes’ work come off as cold to some. For all his proficient talents in crafting a formal piece of cinema, the subversion of social norms can put some at odds with what characters are going through.

Wonderstruck finds Haynes delivering his most accessible film yet. Regardless of how it may match up with his acclaimed drama from the past, it is neat to see Haynes put together a cinematic version of a story that captured his attention. It makes sense, as Ben and Rose easily fit as characters that stem from those Haynes has put to screen before. The benefit this time around is seeing the sort of wonder that arises from telling these two stories and the level of catharsis that comes from the film’s rather brilliant climax.

Lots of supporting performances, including Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael and Corey Michael Smith, are welcome, but the leads sell this picture’s sincerity. Simmonds, in particular, shines as a newcomer found after an exhaustive search. An actual deaf actress, Haynes knows just what to do in letting her expressions guide her portion of the story effectively. Also worth noting, Moore, once again, works exactly the way she should in one of Haynes films; underplaying a role that could easily be handled much more broadly.

There was a lot to admire in Wonderstruck, a film that easily lives up to its title. It may be billed as a drama, but this is a film that presents an emotional journey that never lets up in its intrigue. Even as individual realizations are made, the actors continually find ways to impress, and the film adjusts for the turns that are taken. For a story that focuses on characters lost in life, it was nice to find them and celebrate the story they are a part of.

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