|Scene from Wonderstruck|
Outside of animated movies, it seems very difficult to make a great family movie. The live action format is generally populated with films reliant on cheap jokes and pandering plots. It becomes difficult to see them as being art, or something that encourages kids to see the world in more perplexing manners. Director Todd Haynes has set out with writer Brian Selznick to fix this with Wonderstruck, whose execution is just as hard to summarize as its plot. Even then, it creates the wonder of cinema and youth in a manner that is inspiring. With two intersecting plots, the story challenges basic perceptions of what a family movie can be, and in the process develops a tangible art film for kids. It's heartfelt and moving, as well as smart. There isn't anything like this silent film/70's kids adventure hybrid, and that alone makes it worth checking out.
The story begins with a simple proposition: What does it feel like to feel alone in a busy world? For Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977, the answer comes in a curious incident that leaves him deaf. With despair over his new condition, he flocks to New York to find a long lost family member who left a note in an old book called "Wonderstruck." Likewise, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) wanders through a silent film-style existence in 1927 where she finds solace in the Museum of Natural History. Despite these stories heading down different paths, there's subtle moments that connect them, even juxtaposing the silent film technique as an exploration of Ben's hearing condition. The film challenges the boundaries of both eras, and in doing so relies on the child's perspective to convey a sense of wonder trapped underneath their personal handicaps. It's a film that revels in silent reflection, allowing the rich visuals to overwhelm the screen and leave powerful new impressions of the world.
Haynes has largely been known for making more adult movies like Carol and Velvet Goldmine, so to see him jump to a PG-rated movie is odd. Still, his lavish attention to detail allows the silent film technique to convey story without a line of audible dialogue, only ever accentuated by Carter Burwell's excellent score. The audience knows what's going on even if they can't hear what Rose is saying. There isn't really even kitschy title cards to carry the viewer along. In some ways, it may be the best way to introduce younger audiences to classical styles of film making, as it requires the viewer to engage with the moment and assume the smaller details. It's not dissimilar to Ben, whose story Haynes lets the audience but not Ben himself hear. He doesn't know sign language nor does he have any significant way to communicate, save for a notepad. The world Haynes has created can be seen, but there's a despairing sense that what is missing is connection. Ben and Rose are kids looking for something internal: acceptance and love. Somehow, it comes through a well crafted butterfly effect.
There's also a recurring motif that uses David Bowie's "Space Oddity," where the line "Can you hear me, Major Tom?" is repeated. It plays as irony given the hearing impairment, but also works as the theme of the story. Can the audience hear how Ben and Rose feel as they look for their answers? Children have rarely been depicted this complex in mainstream cinema, as they are allowed to wander and have fun, but inevitably have a vulnerable and emotional core that gets explored. Maybe Haynes' mature gaze at these two characters will be difficult for younger viewers to fully embrace, but the movie is still so full of visual splendor that it should entertain those willing to get lost in its meditative embrace. Along with A Monster Calls from last year, this has been a great time for family movies geared towards those old enough to enjoy more than silly stories. Wonderstruck manages to be simple and complex at the same time, allowing the viewer to find truth within its text.
It helps that Selznick has a gift for mixing artistry with accessible family stories. Much like his previous film, Hugo (based on his book as well), he has a sense of awe for the world that these children inhabit while also using cinematic techniques to alter familiar stories into something more powerful. The silent film section may initially read as gimmicky, but Selznick uses it to convey deeper and more complex ideas not only about emotional conflicts, but how society has changed in the 50 years that separate Ben and Rose. With almost no dialogue, Julianne Moore is deserving of an Oscar nomination in a dual role that connects 1927 to 1977 in impeccable fashion. It's also a film that explores special needs children in a way that's not condescending nor limiting their narrative potential. It's a unique film, and one that shows how feeling alone can lead to something uplifting and cathartic if one holds out hope long enough.
Wonderstruck is a film that's not easy to describe, but has plenty to say to those willing to give it a chance. Much like its protagonists, this film is likely going to appeal to children who feel like outsiders, or long for that special something to make them feel whole. It's by no means a terribly sad story, though it never strays from complex emotions. It looks to hear what its characters have to say, and in doing so provides a deeper understanding of what happiness means. It isn't just the beautiful cinematography and style that makes the film work so well. It's the performances, the music, and the message that it sends. It's a film that asks if you can hear it. For many, they can see it. For those few who connect with the characters, there's a good chance that it can be heard loud and clear.