November 20, 2017

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‘Wonderstruck’ at the Movies

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Millicent Simmonds as Rose in Wonderstruck (Amazon Studios/Mary Cybulski)

The mostly satisfying big screen version of Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck presents something unique, just as the original source material serves as a different type of reading experience: alternatively a middle grade coming of-age tale and a graphic novel. For film buffs, the movie offers the pleasure of a quasi-silent movie. For younger viewers, the adaptation may be an introduction to a bygone way of filmmaking.

The book takes on a similar form of storytelling to Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where the everyday becomes otherworldly,with orphans-in-the-storm plotlines that wouldn’t be out of place in a 19th-century novel. Both thick volumes also exude a fascination with film history. (The former was made into the glossy film Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Wonderstruck was the centerpiece selection at the recent New York Film Festival. It opens theatrically on October 20.)

Like the original source, the Wonderstruck film is smoothly symmetrical, with two parallel story lines, each centered on a hearing impaired 12-year-old runaway, a stranger in the intimidating but ultimately welcoming big city. Ben (Oakes Fegley) has fled the Minnesota countryside to track down a father he doesn’t know. He sneaks out of a hospital and hops om a bus heading east, motivated by a cryptic clue he found among his late mother’s possessions: a Manhattan address on a tethered bookmark.

Rose (the wonderful Millicent Simmonds) has run away from her well-to-do father’s New Jersey mansion rather than be forced to learn how to lip read and speak. (Ben, who has recently lost his hearing, doesn’t know sign language either.) Rose is drawn to the megalopolis across the Hudson, where her favorite silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), will be appearing on stage. (Mayhew appears in a film-within-the film, Daughter of the Storm, an homage to the melodramas of Lillian Gish.)

The two eras are clearly established: the hustle and bustle of 1977 New York City (cue the throbbing bass line) and the dazzling skyline of 1927 Lower Manhattan. The filmmakers have crafted a valentine to the Big Apple, whether in its Jazz Age heyday against a backdrop of gleaming Beaux Arts high-rises, or at its most downtrodden.

For the 1970s portion, the production team gets the Me Decade’s pop cultural details right: the great soundtrack features David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as the film’s de facto theme song; the muted orange and burnt colors; and the let-it-all-handout hairstyles. Unfortunately, that means Ben’s face often remains hidden under an unruly mop of hair.

Julianne Moore in Wonderstuck (Cannes Film Festival)

Director Todd Haynes conjures the feeling of wide-eyed amazement, especially in the narrative set in the1920s that plays out as a silent movie in glowing black and white. The edits between the two time periods highlight the contrasts and similarities between the two runaways. Like the kids, the camera is constantly on the move, filming them from every conceivable angle.

Fans of the book will have little to complain about. With minimal tweaks, Haynes retained the book’s wide-eyed essence, particularly regarding Rose. The visuals were clearly inspired by Selznick’s pencil drawings, which virtually serve as a storyboard for Haynes. The novel is also a natural for a movie spin-off, given that it treats silent movies as an art form without condescension. Here, there is no such thing as silent movie acting: the exaggerated eye rolls or the wildly exaggerated expressions and hand movements. When it’s Rose’s turn, the film is at its most enthralling.

The magic dissipates, though, when the two story lines converge and the action leads to Queens (no offense to the borough). The film, earlier light on its feet, comes back down to Earth with a conclusion that is essentially one long revelation—to Ben, not the viewers, who have already figured out the plot’s uncomplicated puzzles pieces. After the giddy time travel to the 1920s, viewers are likely to get restless. This is also where the narrative’s bare bones become exposed. The coincidences pile up, along with lingering questions about Ben’s family history. The last act is something of a letdown after the preceding exuberant filmmaking. Readers will know what to expect; others may be surprised how easy and flatly the two parallel threads unite. As a result, the film’s afterglow shines softly.

Directed by Todd Haynes
Adapted by Brian Selznick, based on his novel
115 min. Rated PG

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Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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