Monday, March 26, 2018

Review of WONDERSTRUCK: Marvel at the Museum

March 25, 2108

There was practically no advertising for this film, so I was surprised to see it so quietly released in cinemas this week at all. It turns out that this film had some big names attached to it, like actress Julianne Moore (Oscar Best Actress for "Still Alice" 2014) and director Todd Haynes ("Carol" 2015, "Far From Heaven" 2002). It made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year and reportedly earned a three minute standing ovation during its premiere there. This promised to be a good film to catch.

Once upon a time, two young deaf kids ran away from home to look for an absent parent in New York City. One was in 1927, when Rose ran away from her father's home in New Jersey to find the famous actress Lillian Mayhew, the mother she idolized from afar and missed. The other was in 1977, when Ben ran away from his recently departed mother's home in Minnesota to find the father he never knew.

Director Todd Haynes told his story (script by Brian Selznick adapting his own 2011 book) with alternating scenes from both eras. The 1927 scenes were in black and white and silent. The 1977 scenes were in color and with sound. It was like watching two different movies, with their respective rich production designs and musical score distinctive for each decade. In both stories, the kids eventually find their way into the American Museum of Natural History, where the connection between the two threads will be finally revealed.

It was the performances of the two kids that carried the film. Rose was played by Millicent Simmond, a 14-year old deaf actress. Simmonds impressed me in this her film debut with her strong screen presence and confidence. Ben was played by Oakes Fegley, a 13-year old actor whom we last saw in the lead role of Pete in "Pete's Dragon" (2016). Fegley was feisty and spirited, convincing as a country boy who dared to face the unknown. Veteran actress and four-time Todd Haynes muse Julianne Moore played a key role in each of the two kids' stories. 

Of course, the fact that the kids were deaf made it necessary that some lines needed to be written to be read by the person they were talking to and vice versa, so that device did take some toll on the flow of the film. Sometimes it was not easy to read the penmanship being flashed on the screen, but we can just surmise the messages based on context. 

This film may not be for everybody. The pace of the first two acts can feel dragging at certain points especially with the silence. Sometimes the events seem to fall unbelievably into place so neatly by pure luck and serendipity.  However, eventually the magical whimsy of the final act, unexpectedly executed with stop-motion animation, made the patience of those who stay up to that point all worth their while. That was such a poignant ending which will stick with you as you leave the theater. 7/10. 

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