MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Wonderstruck’ is a uniquely challenging, quietly rewarding fantasy

Proving fantasy can have to be rooted in reality, Todd Haynes' tale of two timelines is a beautifully strange film

| November 16, 2017

I didn’t like “Carol.” Sue me.

Whenever I utter my distaste for “Carol,” I’m suddenly expected to explain the multitude of reasons I never found it compelling or interesting. Whenever a queer love story can’t draw me into its world, it’s a heartbreaking scenario for me, and Todd Haynes initiated that with “Carol” in me. What was worse was that it was my first experience with Todd Haynes as a filmmaker, and since “Carol,” I have familiarized myself with his other work, even if my first, and possibly most objectively revered, outing let me down. With that, even knowing his other work, I was hesitant coming into “Wonderstruck,” if only because I was afraid of the possibility of being let down by Haynes again. Though, “Wonderstruck” and “Carol” could not be more different films, and I’ve been more surprised by much more drastic turnarounds before, so why couldn’t I give “Wonderstruck” a break?

That’s a question I have still yet to answer, because “Wonderstruck” is a delight. A challenging delight to approach, but a delight nonetheless.

Set across two timelines, “Wonderstruck” primarily focuses on a timeline set in 1977, when a recently orphaned boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), also recently deafened by an accident involving lightning, runs away from Minnesota to New York City to find his estranged father after finding a clue to his whereabout in an old possession of his mother’s (Michelle Williams). In another timeline, set 50 years earlier in 1927, the film follows deaf girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who also runs away from her affluent home in Hoboken, New Jersey, to find her absent actress mother (Julianne Moore) acting across the bay in New York City. As “Wonderstruck” goes on, Ben and Rose’s path begins to overlap more and more until a pivotal moment slams their two stories together in an unimaginable way.

What makes “Wonderstruck” so great to watch is that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You might find it to be slow or boring or whatnot, but you can’t deny that what Haynes has done here is a beautiful tale of one city–two times. There’s a fantasy element of “Wonderstruck” that I couldn’t shake, even though the film is firmly rooted in reality, there’s something so magical about the film that makes it feel like a fantasy film with magic creatures and otherworldliness abound. I think in the juxtaposition of the two entirely different ways that Haynes crafts the two storylines, with Ben’s storyline resembling that of a 1970s drama, and Rose’s storyline resembling that of a silent film of the area, to mimic Rose’s deafness, it’s a wonderful homage to two time periods of film that gracefully intertwine with each other through Haynes’ steady vision of how the stories grow closer and closer.

Fegley, who was quite the scene-stealer in last year’s lovely “Pete’s Dragon” remake, does more wonderful work here. Ben is a character who has a lot to be angry about, but Fegley balances this sort of anger with a sort of excited anxiety about his meaning for his trip to New York. He’s a complicated character with a lot of factors that play into his psyche, and Fegley can really hone in a lot of different emotions in a single scene. For that to be had in such a young actor is special and shouldn’t be overlooked. Simmonds is also quite good as Rose, even if she’s really only given a fraction of the screen time and emotional material as Fegley. Actually hearing impaired, her pre-existing deafness at the start of the film, as opposed to Ben’s makes her portrayal of deafness one of more familiarity and confidence, which makes her story an absolute breeze to get through as Simmonds is just such a joy to watch. Like Fegley, she handles emotion very well and is a real contender to look out for in the future of her career. Moore also delivers two very good performances that one might not expect from the expectedly good actress. Williams, however, is wasted on a role that should’ve been given far more screen time than it was. She’s simply too good of an actress to waste in the way that she is here.

If I had a main complaint with “Wonderstruck,” it would be that the balancing of the two stories, however powerful they may be, makes Rose’s story feel a bit more jipped, more so in an artistic sense than a true narrative one, as we get to revisit her essence in Ben’s world, but for Haynes to take on such a daring endeavor to style Rose’s world after a silent film, I wish she could’ve had more of a time to shine for both Haynes’ and Simmonds’ sake. It’s a shame, even if it doesn’t ruin the movie in any real way.

While the film is incredibly family friendly and is a low PG-rating, “Wonderstruck” is slow, and might be best suited for more mature adolescents than that of children. This is a good bridge for tweens to access art-house film in a way that gets them to where they need to go in a much more slight, subtle way. It takes a while for “Wonderstruck” to get where it’s going, and while it’s a delight to watch Haynes simply do his thing with the stories on screen, it arguably could’ve been done in a much more concise manner. That being said, the payoff for “Wonderstruck” is quite satisfying in the end, making the journey feel far less arduous than one might believe it to be before the final act.

But I think that’s what “Wonderstruck” really is: a journey. Even though the ending is satisfying thematically, it’s more so about experiencing these kids’ first taste of life firsthand and how their adversity can help and hinder them in the great beyond of things. It’s a surprisingly magical film that’s beautiful to look at and has a massive heart inside of it. The pacing is wonky at times and the film truly does waste Williams in a way no film ever should, especially with the limited number of films she stars in now. Still, Haynes completely redeemed himself of the slightly bitter taste left in my mouth after being blindsided by “Carol” so. It’s a limited release, so one might not be able to catch it on screen before it disappears, but it’ll be one of the more interesting things to check out on Amazon Prime Video when it drops.

4/5

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Directed by: Todd Haynes
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Tom Noonan, with Michelle Williams, and introducing Millicent Simmonds.
Runtime: 116 minutes
Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Now playing exclusively at the Regal Manor Twin.

Amazon Studios presents, a Killer Films/Cinetic Media production, a film by Todd Haynes, “Wonderstruck”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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