Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Reading a book is somewhat of a personalized experience. The way you interpret details is all inside the confines of your imagination. There are not many modern authors who transform the thought process into such a tactile, tangible product quite like Brian Selznick. The Invention of Hugo Cabret turned the physical book the in reader’s hands into part of the plot. Director Martin Scorsese’s HUGO puts a spin on this, making it a movie about the love of cinema. Selznick’s follow-up novel, Wonderstruck, was also designed as a specifically structured experience, using illustrations and words to tell the tale. Its cinematic adaptation (which he also wrote) transforms into another different, yet wholly unique and magical entity. Director Todd Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK is a high-concept, coming-of-age family film that’s completely accessible to audiences of all ages.
The plot is wildly ambitious, yet interwoven fairly seamlessly – a genuine feat given that half of this picture is a silent movie. Twelve-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) and fellow tween Rose (Millicent Simmonds, whose performance is nothing short of revelatory) might live in two different eras, but they are united by one thing: a search for their identity. For our young hero in 1977, it’s a calling to find his estranged father after his single mom (Michelle Williams) passes away suddenly. For our young heroine in 1927, she sets her sights on meeting a mysterious actress (Julianne Moore). Ben’s quest is prompted by the discovery of a clue hidden in his mother’s belongings. Rose’s journey begins when she reads a headline in the newspaper. Both set forth, traveling to bustling New York City, experiencing similar (and dissimilar) setbacks and triumphs on their roads toward claiming their missing puzzle pieces.
Any changes made in the book-to-screen journey have been done with the greatest of care. They are minimal, but also impactful. The filmmakers have put demonstrative passion and thought into how the audience experiences momentous character moments. Setting both the kids’ storylines in different transformative eras emphasizes the fact that the protagonists’ lives are also in a transitional phase. Rose’s era was when silent film shifted to “talkies” (which, incidentally, displaced a lot of deaf audiences). Ben’s era was when the city itself experienced shifting dynamics – filmmaking, music and politics were in metamorphosis.
The juxtaposition between the two times also imparts a hearty flavor. 1927 was all optimism and ascendency, and 1977 was the polar opposite, jaded and falling apart. The feeling of displacement is palpable. These kids feel like outsiders in a forever changing land. While it might take a minute or two to feel out the structure, transitions back and forth from the black and white era (Rose’s quest), to color (Ben’s quest) are well-integrated. It also achieves a strong narrative balance between these two storylines. Their intersection is one that’s filled with powerful poignancy – so much so it made my heart burst and tears moisten my face.
Music plays an unspoken, but heard role. Not only do we glean character insight through the magnificent use of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Sweet’s “Fox On The Run,” but Carter Burwell’s score does a lot of the heavy lifting. Never pushy or intrusive, it’s only utilized when absolutely necessary. He’s molded an adventurous, complementary component to Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman’s vision – particularly audible in Rose’s portions. Lachman’s contributions are incomparable. His aesthetic (the reliable yellow-green-tinted color palette) augments Ben’s adventure in the gritty city as juxtaposed with the soft, tender warmth of his memories.
Perhaps the most wonderfully understated thing about WONDERSTRUCK is that it will now serve as an entry for youngsters to grow into Haynes’ other, more adult offerings – just as HUGO did for another auteur. This demonstrates that the cinematic experience can be just as personally transcendent as reading. With its daring, audacious spirit, coupled with elegantly shaped themes and aesthetics, it will strike you with wonder.
WONDERSTRUCK is now playing.