WonderstruckReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/03/17 17:06:37
A couple of people in the audience for "Wonderstruck" were saying this wasn't a PG movie as we exited the theater, and, yeah, it's heavy at times, and I'm sure that my brother and sister-in-law are going to cringe at some of the scenes of 1977 New York when I give a copy to my niece for her 12th birthday next year, but she's a smart kid, and bright girls like her should be able to handle it. This movie is frequently sad and occasionally scary, but it's also ambitious and kind of terrific, the sort of smart entertainment middle-schoolers deserve.It's built around two great, parallel performances, with Oakes Fegley as Ben, an orphaned boy who runs away to New York to learn about his the father he never met, and Millicent Simmonds as Rose, a girl the same age who did the same thing to see her absent mother fifty years earlier. Though both play hearing-impaired characters (with Simmonds herself Deaf), they are given very different approaches to their similar stories: There's a restlessness to Fegley's Ben, a chip on his shoulder that doesn't make him mean but does have him defensive quickly, and Fegley does a fine job of showing him on edge emotionally even if he can seem seem overly relaxed in how he deals with what seems like a dangerous world around him. He's got a great rapport with Jaden Michael, who plays the kid Ben meets in New York - the pair bring out their characters' curiosity, and Michael plays Jamie's more subtle loneliness as a muted but still keen reflection of Ben's.
Simmonds, meanwhile, plays a character who has been deaf since birth and isolated because of it, and as a result her defiance is more baked-in, her body language a bit stiff and like she's pushing through something. But even when she's doing that, there's a mischievous streak of creativity to her, a sense that concentrating on a problem or a discovery takes her away from the unfairness she must spend much of her time dealing with, and a genuine joy when she finds a situation where her disability is actually irrelevant, whether it be the wonders within New York's American Museum of Natural History or the brother who is genuinely fond of her. Simmonds often holds up her end of the movie without a lot of obvious help, especially since, with the exception of some fine work by Julianne Moore, the most recognizable folks in both halves (Moore, James Urbaniak, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan) are often in small but well-placed roles, with the kids carrying most of the film.
Writer Brian Selznick adapts his own novel, a sizable tome for young readers split between prose and illustrations, and he gives director Todd Haynes a good way to use of his parallel stories to keep the audience engaged. Ben is trying to solve a mystery, but it's not a puzzle that the audience can try to solve with him, just following a trail from one spot to another. The cross-cutting from 1977 to 1927 gives the viewers clues to connect and a chance to put their brains to work finding parallels and noting changes. There's smart plotting in the later time period, and while Haynes and editor Affonso Gonçalves are timing their transitions between periods perfectly, Haynes and his crew are making sure that the audience is aware of how the pair are missing signals that hearing folks don't while not making it exploitative.
Plus, just look and listen to it. Haynes plays the 1927 scenes as a silent movie (albeit a modern one with contemporary cutting and carefully synced music), and it's a perfect way to use Rose's deafness and contrast it with Ben's hearing impairment in 1977 - it feels like a natural lack of sound that she can navigate just like the period's filmmakers knew how to tell a story visually, while the way Ben's story loses sound at times is as disorienting to the audience as it must be to him. Both periods are recreated with love but not exaggerated to play as pastiche, and the scenes which bridge them are brilliantly conceived and executed as well (on a similar note, I don't know if 1927 New York at night was a model, but if not, I appreciate the effort to make the effects look like a model). There's also a brilliant, genuine joy to parts off the film that might have been functional, like when kids chasing each other through the Museum of Natural History occasionally pause because of dinosaur bones or the like.I love this movie; it's my favorite thing to come out for kids (and the rest of us) since another filmmaker not really associated with family films adapted another Brian Selznick book into "Hugo". It is, certainly, something with a bit more weight than pre-teens like Rose and Ben are usually offered, but like the characters themselves, they can handle it, and the grown-ups watching it with or without them will be plenty involved even without things being pitched over the kids' heads.
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