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With: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Jaden Michael, Raul Torres, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak, Amy Hargreaves
Written by: Brian Selznick, based on his book
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking
Running Time: 117
Date: 10/20/2017

Wonderstruck (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hear We Are

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Todd Haynes has always been a remarkably intellectual filmmaker, creating something close to poetic visual essays on subjects ranging from the social (Poison, Safe) to music (Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There) and movies (Far from Heaven). Yet the mind never overpowers the body in his films, and they are frequently satisfying emotional experiences as well. For me, his new film Wonderstruck fits right in; like Far from Heaven, it's a great movie about movies, and about other things as well. It's based on a book by Brian Selznick, whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret provided the basis for another movie-crazy movie by the movie-crazy Martin Scorsese.

Yet Wonderstruck seems to be getting fairly lackluster reviews, and these baffle me. My guess is that most of them are comparing it to Haynes' previous film, Carol, and finding it lacking. Certainly Carol had a timely message about rights for homosexuals that critics could chew on, while Wonderstruck has no such messages. Or perhaps they were impressed by the "adult" quality of Carol, while Wonderstruck has a more "childish" quality, and to them, that's a bad thing. Perhaps they are unwilling to look at the film with childlike eyes; I'm seeing a lot of reviews that call the film "cold" or "emotionless," whereas I found it incredibly moving. Frankly, I like Wonderstruck better than Carol. For me Carol worked — albeit beautifully — on a single level only, while Wonderstruck works on multiple levels.

The new movie takes place in two time periods. There is a vividly re-created 1977 New York City, filled with funky music, tube tops, and grindhouse theaters. A young boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley, from last year's Pete's Dragon) who lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota with is mother, is struck by lightning and loses his hearing. His mother (Michelle Williams) refuses to tell him anything about his real father, so when he discovers a book with a clue in it, he hits the road to New York.

Meanwhile, in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a little deaf girl whose brutal father (James Urbaniak) is trying to make her learn to speak. She is obsessed with her absent mother (Julianne Moore), a movie actress in the silent cinema. Along those lines, Haynes presents this segment as a black-and-white silent movie. The movie takes a poignant turn when Rose goes to see one of her mother's movies, leaves the cinema, and discovers a huge poster for talking pictures, coming soon. (It's the end of a beautiful era.) In any case, Rose discovers that her mother is performing in New York and decides to go see her.

Both children end up at the Museum of Natural History. Ben meets another boy, Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works as a security guard and who spends his days hanging out in a secret room. Jamie helps Ben with the mystery of the book, and with learning who his father might be. Meanwhile, Rose places a wish on top of a meteor — the meteor is there in both time periods — and a man who works at the museum (who turns out to be her brother) finds her and whisks her to his home.

The cutting between the two segments is remarkably smooth, a wonder of editing, rhyming images as it goes; the two strands are in lovely harmony, one never outweighing the other. Then, Haynes begins tying together the two story threads, revealing all the mysteries, but he does so in a slow, careful way, as any good storyteller would. He preserves strands of mystery, and allows some of them to simply be cosmic coincidences, as if the whole universe were in on it, and shooting stars and meteors had crossed the sky simply to arrive at one particular moment.

Not to invoke the movie's title too literally, but there were many times that I was, indeed, wonderstruck. There are strikingly gorgeous moments, in which the human endeavor to find beauty in life is memorialized, and I found my heart swelling at these moments. Carter Burwell's astounding score, which, amazingly, emphasizes silence, is certainly a contributing factor.

It's probably not a perfect movie, and it certainly doesn't draw any sturdy conclusions, but the themes it touches on, tests out, are enough for me. Yet I think that what I liked best about Wonderstruck is, like Scorsese's Hugo, the way that Haynes uses the silent cinema to underscore something that has been lost, but not necessarily lost forever. It's history, but it's alive. It's time and technology. It's music and movement. The movie ties it into the concept of hearing and silence, and mirroring and memory, and how all this is — if you stand back for a moment and really take a look — a miracle.

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