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London Film Festival Review: Wonderstruck – “Like nothing else at the cinema”

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Wonderstruck is a well-named movie. It’s also a rewarding watch for viewers willing to immerse themselves within its confusing realm, because this very particular story execution elevates Todd Haynes‘ latest effort to much more than it first seems.

The real star of Wonderstruck

Coming-of-age stories are usually the staple of Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater, not Haynes, known for his ponderous dissection of adult angst. His fresh approach keeps Wonderstruck rich with detail as it world-builds from interlinked stories. It has much in common with Scorsese’s Hugo, both films being adaptations of author Brian Selznick‘s YA work.

Haynes muse Julianne Moore makes an appearance, as does Michelle Williams, but neither star is the focus. Wonderstruck is about the confusion of youth and loss, and of being different. The film is itself a process of losing comprehension, cleverly making its point using plot and style. In order to do this, Wonderstruck isn’t short, but this investment pays off.

Rose

The story strings together three narratives, two set in New York City, once in 1927 and again in 1977. However, it starts with a small boy and his bohemian mother going about their nighttime rituals in rural Minnesota. The boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is captivated by a book about a historical exhibition known as Wonderstruck, filled with pictures of ceiling-high cabinets full of eccentric collectables. Just before his birthday, Ben asks his mother (Williams) to finally confirm his absent father’s identity, but when she still won’t his frustration grows. Then a freak accident causes Ben to lose his hearing and the ensuing confusion leads him on a solo journey to New York to search for the answers he craves. Meanwhile, the action cuts to Rose’s story. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives in a monochrome world, seemingly a prison of her father’s making. Stern, he encourages her to combat her own deafness with dry textbooks. But Rose wants to explore and seek out her hero – actress Lillian Mayhew (Moore in one of two roles) so she also runs away to the big city.

Haynes clearly demonstrates these children’s mutual experience of a world without sound, their discombobulation, lack of comprehension of danger and personal frustration set against one of the most vibrant world cities. Sometimes their problems are hilarious, at other times their worlds filled with fear. Oddly, Wonderstruck is also part-detective story. The plot swiftly moving between the stories enabling the audience to solve clues to mysteries as the narratives begin to align.

Wonderstruck is nothing without its young cast. Simmonds is fascinating, her expressive face giving life to what could otherwise be a Chaplinesque turn. There as has long been a Hollywood problem with disability, ignorant filmmakers wanting to turn the talented and impaired into ghoulish circus creations. Haynes treats her well, but Simmonds is clearly a natural talent, and she should go on to roles where her deafness is not what defines her character.

When the story moves to NYC, a new strand brings Ben into contact with Jamie (Jaden Michael). Michael is one to watch, and some of the most moving scenes are the conversations between him and Fegley, two innocent friends dealing with adult issues. Fegley, unlike Simmonds, is a hearing actor and an accomplished one at that, showing that talent is not limited to those who have finished school.

The older actors also do their jobs well, the consummate talent of Williams and Moore in pivotal motherly roles shine through, without overshadowing the child stars. Moore’s second role in a later part of the story is incredibly touching.  And it introduces another star, the Queens Museum’s amazing map model.

Wonderstruck is like nothing else at the cinema. Children and women are the plot drivers, enabling the viewer to experience for themselves loss and curiosity through the eyes of a child. Watch it and wonder.

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