Film Review – Wonderstruck
A large part of our development as humans is having a sense of belonging. Where one fits inside a family, at school, at work, with friends and in the pantheon of the world at large, is part of the identification of one’s self. Belonging though, always starts with familial relations and branches, like a tree, from there. In director Todd Haynes‘ latest movie, the search for family is tantamount to a search for self. Ethereal and transfixed, Wonderstruck casts a gaze of awe over a tale of sorrow and creates an emotionally intelligent children’s story.
Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a boy without parents, living with his aunt and cousins in the Midwest, when a freak lightning storm accident leaves him without hearing. Having never known his father, Ben was initially raised by his mom, who for reasons unknown to him kept his father’s identity a secret. Now an outsider, treated so by his relatives, Ben discovers a clue to what could be his father’s identity and decides to run away to go in search of him.
Meanwhile, fifty years prior, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a girl who also is deaf and out of frustration for a desire to belong, sets off for New York to find her mother Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who is there acting in silent films. Ben’s world is that of the 1970s, psychedelic, funky and over-saturated in comparison to Rose’s world, silent, rapturous and enveloping. Running away from home occurs for many different reasons, but in our pop cultural hyperbole it’s been romanticized with fantasies of running away to a museum, hiding out overnight and having a world of discovery at your fingertips.
Haynes, along with screenwriter and novelist Brian Selznick, have crafted a world inside their film of museums. From the moments Rose and Ben step off the bus into New York, Haynes presents the city like a diorama, respectively in each of their time frames. Ben walks down the infamous 42nd Street in the 1970s, to porn theaters, pimps, prostitutes and junkies accompanied by Esther Phillips’ super funky “All the Way Down,” while Rose wanders through a much more bourgeois New York, dapper and prim to Carter Burwell’s gorgeous, classical score.
Like the fantasy of running away, Ben and Rose spend much of their screen times actually in museums. It’s here that Haynes appears to be indulging a fantasy of his own, as the camera drifts from child to exhibits with the kind of lingering trance that seeks to get as lost as the characters. Ben makes friends with Jamie (Jaden Michael), the son of a museum worker, who helps Ben on his quest to find the person that could be his father. They are eventually led to a diorama of New York inside a museum. The memory of a world inside a tribute to memory.
Magical and yet grounded, Wonderstruck is the kind of movie that wants you to feel good by the time it’s done and it does that with emotion to spare. Able to finally utilize a David Bowie song for his movie, something Haynes has been trying to do for most of his career, he doesn’t disappoint in its placement. He as well provides an outright amazing rendition of “Space Oddity” that plays during the end credits.
Slowly, and without the desire to walk the audience along, the two worlds of Ben and Rose reveal an intertwining that also leads to the mystery of Ben’s father. Haynes captures Rose’s world like that of a silent film, narrated by music. Between the two time frames there’s an overlap in emotion that’s supported by the delicate approach to the tragedy underlining both Ben and Rose’s lives. Haynes wants his audience to be aware but not weighed down by the harsher realities of the world that are discovered upon a quest for information. It’s not so much about searching for information though as it is about searching for a place to belong. “Where do I belong?” Rose asks. Hands down one of the best films of the year.