Actually, just watch WONDERSTRUCK.
After having to review it twice, I can’t even begin to try and unpack everything wrong with Dear Evan Hansen for a third time. Between its misguided attempts at humanity, its surface level treatment of very serious subjects and that bizarre third number that somebody thought would be a great way for a suicide victim and an anxiety-ridden “teen” to bond, the movie is a mess.
Thankfully, Julianne Moore is there to make it all better. The Oscar-winner graciously lends her talent as the title character’s mother, injecting the film with actual bits of human flaws and frailty which shows how committed she is to the badly-written material. Of course it’s only expected that Moore would bring this kind of professionalism and grace. The actress is known for taking the most dire of projects and giving them a certain warmth and empathy, whether she’s the sole focus or not.
Sadly, though, one of the most exquisite recent examples of her glowing presence and her distinct talent was in a film virtually no one saw- the touching 2017 drama Wonderstruck.
Directed by Todd Haynes from the Brian Selznick novel, Wonderstruck tells the story of two children in two vastly different eras. In 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives with her stern father (James Urbaniak) but decides to run away to New York and live with her estranged mother, the great silent screen actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Meanwhile, in 1977 Minnesota, a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) has to deal with both the death of his single mother (Michelle Williams) and an accident which has resulted in the loss of his own hearing. Desperate to find the father he’s only known certain clues about, he too journeys to New York in order to locate him.
It’s hard to watch Wonderstruck and not be wowed by its visual construction. The two eras at play here are brought back to life spectacularly and captured through Haynes’ loving and gentle cinematic eye. The softness that comes with the 1920s scenes bring with it that very specific mix of beauty and timelessness that washes over lovers of silent films, plunging us into Rose’s world and feeling every emotional turn she takes. Meanwhile, Ben’s journey in the 1970s sequences give off a purely literary feel. With faded colors and almost dreamlike cinematography, Haynes nails that period of time in society between the simplicity of the past and the burgeoning wave of modernity. Seeing it through Ben’s eyes makes it simply magical. Of course, it isn’t just the recreation of the times themselves that catch the eye, but more importantly the recreation of New York itself as seen through two hugely different and transitional eras for the city. There’s almost a sort of melancholy that comes with the view Haynes gives us in the black and white shots. Taking place two years before the crash of ’29, we see a vibrant and alive New York blissfully unaware of what it will soon become. By contrast, in the 70s scenes, we see a big apple trying to hold itself together and maintain the essence which made it one of the greatest cities of the world. Nowhere is this more evident that in the wondrous museum Ben hides in.
A handful of the themes from Selznick’s previous work, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” can be easily found here. The author has a knack for crafting young protagonists who embody the always underestimated resilience that lies within children. This is certainly true of both Rose and Ben. The pair may be worlds apart, but both share the same kind of adventurous spirit, approaching every obstacle they encounter with bravery while refusing to be thwarted on their respective missions. Wonderstruck lets both children also be children by giving them moments which allow them to experience actual wonder and joy. Neither Haynes nor the film talk down to either character, giving them instead actual fears and hardships that are presented plainly without any sugarcoating. Both Rose and Ben are on their own journeys to find answers, but also to find their families…and themselves. In fact, the way the film tracks a child’s quest for identity is perhaps the element which gives it its strongest level of authenticity where its characters are concerned. Wonderstruck wisely doesn’t spend too much time talking about what constitutes a family beyond the conventional image that existed heavily in both of the film’s eras. Instead, Wonderstruck focuses on the inherent bond between families; it’s unshakable power and how it permeates through generations.
Fegley and Simmonds each do extraordinary work here. Not only are the two the very picture of childhood perseverance and innocence, but each one fits right into their respective decade and turn in highly accomplished performances. The same is true of Jaden Michael as Jamie, who, as Ben’s only friend in the city, evokes his character’s own loneliness in a way which favors truth over cuteness. Finally, in a double role, Moore gives one of her finest turns as a Lillian Gish sort of diva in the 1920s scenes before oozing serenity as a mysterious woman who comes to Ben’s aid in the latter period of the film.
When Selznick’s first novel was adapted into 2011’s Hugo, it was hailed, acclaimed and even declared one of the best films of the year. Although Wonderstruck was greeted with a rousing reception upon its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, its autumn release was met with indifference and the film quickly disappeared from the minds of those who did know about it. Even now, four years later, the film still hasn’t received the kind of admiration a select few do feel is warranted. As reappraisal continues to elude Wonderstruck however, its signature beauty and its moving portrait of childhood remain the kind of captivating cinematic experience that can’t help but touch the soul.