I’m a sucker for a good book (this includes comics, and manga, as well as fiction novels). Which of course means I’m likely to fall into a state of complete panic when there’s an announcement that said “good book” is about to be adapted to film…the most recent film being, Brian Selznick’s novel, Wonderstruck.
Wonderstruck is the story of two children, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), living in two very different eras but struggling to hold on to the same dream: to escape the fate circumstances far beyond their control has pushed on them. It’s a seriously magical story that I highly recommend for any middle-grade age kid you may need to buy a present.
Selznick wrote a deeply moving, yet entertaining, tale about these two children interwoven with a rich mix of detail of two distinct eras. Rose lives in 1955, the age of the silent movies, dime stores, and glamorous stars. Ben lives in 1977, the age of free love, chaotic city streets, and moving to a groove.
Quick and Dirty Take: Armed with a screenplay written by Selznick and leading a uniquely talented ensemble – including Julianne Moore playing multiple roles – and introducing an astonishingly emotive Millicent Simmonds as young Rose; director Todd Haynes builds a visual around these dual storylines that’s completely engrossing.
Wonderstruck is a character-driven, atmospheric mystery that explores loneliness, loss, self-awareness, and courage in a spellbinding and beautifully rendered story. It does an amazing job of bringing this novel to the screen without losing much of what makes it special.
The Details: Rose and Ben both long for, not so much a different life, but for a missing emotional connection to a particular person. Rose chronicles the career of a glamorous actress in a scrapbook. Ben’s finds a clue in his mother’s private keepsakes to his unknown father’s identity.
Despite being separated in time by 55 years, Rose and Ben each embark on an emotional journey that beautifully the mirrors the other and ultimately brings them to their shared fate.
All the major changes in these kids’ lives are visually paired with a larger change in the world. For Rose, it’s the advent of sound in theaters. For Ben, it’s a freak accident during a thunderstorm. Each event sets them off on their journey. I was invested in the mystery as soon as I realized this nontraditional storytelling was being done for more than its pretty visual effect. All the characters were fully engaging – no matter how little screen time they actually had – and only worked to hold this narrative together and add life to the story.
Both Rose and Ben find their adventures revolving around a museum in New York City. In both time periods, this museum is full of awe-inspiring exhibits and interesting people. Each meets a pivotal character in the museum that eventually leads to their entire life changing.
For Rose, that person is her brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith and Tom Noonan) and for Ben, a young kid named Jaime (Jaden Michael) the child of a museum worker. These mini-vignettes provide a quick glimpse into the inner workings of the characters’ lives and the history and importance of museum itself. Without knowing it, you learn things that become far more important later without taking away from any of the action happening on the screen. It’s some smooth subliminal action that just made me like the film more after the fact.
Wonderstruck does require a little patience because, it not only switches back and forth through time, it switches character point of view more than once. But Haynes does an excellent job of blending concepts and navigating time in order to weave these two story arcs together and tell a cohesive story that never fails to captivate.
This isn’t your typical kid runs away from home and goes on a merry adventure. It feels urgent, understandable, and unconcerned with how people might interpret what should be a cautionary tale about the dangers of talking to strangers, wandering around unsupervised, and acting with no plan instead becomes a fascinating story about trying to hold someone back, the consequences of keeping secrets and the beauty of finding out where you really belong. I’ve got a thing for symmetry in storytelling and Wonderstruck more than hits its mark.
On screen, each time period is painstakingly recreated to have an authentic look and feel. At one stage of the story, it’s impossible to distinguish Julianne Moore’s onscreen image from any that would’ve existed at that time in real life. The use of black and white sequences helps to differentiate between the two story arcs in action and it adds just a touch of old-school silent movie magic to Rose’s storyline.
I was slightly disappointed when some of these storytelling tools fell by the wayside in the latter half of the film. I think had they continued to be used to support the film’s theme, some of the reveals would’ve garnered a bigger emotional payoff.
The cinematography brought parts of this book to life in a dramatic fashion that added layers of nuance to each stage of the film as this story unfolds. It switches between being funky and old Hollywood elegant with the same ease it navigates the hearing and deaf worlds.
Deafness is a central theme of both the book and the film. In a move that I personally believe is responsible for how interesting and emotional this film feels, Haynes uses the absence of sound perfectly to not only set the pace, it acts as the silent – but ever-present – narrator for the entire film. The generational differences and time shifts are showcased and highlighted with vivid musical changes. The entire score acts like connective tissue and keeps this film moving forward at a steady pace.
If you like character-driven mysteries, that are as interesting to figure out as they are to look at, I highly recommend catching Wonderstruck before it leaves theaters.
It may be based off a middle-grade novel, but this film’s all grown up and ready to reel you in. It has kinks that could’ve been worked out in a more satisfying fashion along the way, but these young actors are just a little magical. And honestly, the hiccups only aid in keeping the realism alive (these are children making children-shaped decisions) particularly since they leave the ending very unresolved.
Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5