Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Brian Selznick from his novel
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Tom Noonan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/26/17
Opens: October 20, 2017
You may want to spend a cinematic night in a museum with Ben, but not with Ben Stiller this time. The Ben in “Wonderstruck,” which is based on Brian Selznick’s novel which he adapted for the screen, is a 12-year-old (Oakes Fegley) in the role of just Ben. The lad has a double, kind of, a girl his age who also spent a night in the Museum of Natural History, and her name is Rose (Millicent Simmonds). In an unusual casting, Ms. Simmonds is really deaf, which could make directing her difficult, but that was not a problem in the hands of Todd Haynes, who has a reputation as a fine storyteller.
This is a movie that people who are deaf or hard of hearing might go for despite the absence of captions, since there are long silences particularly when covering Rose’s story, one which takes place fifty years earlier than Ben’s. We see New York’s AMNH (American Museum of Natural History) and environments in black-and-white in 1927. We look at a more colorful New York in 1977, still before the age of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter—which makes the two eras not so different from each other. Without giving away something about the story that you’d doubtless guess, screenwriter Selznick finds a connection between Ben and Rose as does his novel—a 640-page door-stopper that has been nonetheless a popular tome with readers from age 10 to the young in heart age 90.
Focusing on the sticks of Minnesota in ’77, Edward Lachman’s lenses train on Ben, now age 12, who is depressed that his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams in her third movie this year) has been killed in an auto accident. Since when it rains it pours, Ben is confused about his missing father, a man he hopes to track down in New York City. Meanwhile fifty years earlier, Rose, born profoundly deaf, feels strangled by her harsh treatment from Dr. Kincaid, her uptight father (James Urbaniak). Like a political segment of people in Josh Aronson’s terrific movie in 2000 “Sound and Fury,” she does not want to learn to lip read, since in part the movies that she loves are all silent with intertitles, though she becomes sad when seeing that talkies, introduced that year, would deny her the words.
When Ben sees “Cabinets of Wonder,” a catalog that may contain a clue to his dad’s location, he springs into action. When Rose sees a clipping that her favorite actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) stars in a New York play, she runs away from Hoboken to Manhattan. At the same time Ben, who has been struck deaf by an electrical storm, makes it to New York City 50 years later where he befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael) another 12-year-old, whose father works in the Museum of Natural History.
Behind the editor’s screen, Affonso Goncalves combines the two eras with sudden surprises, sometimes spending just seconds on 1977 and quickly shifting to Old New York. Visually the New York of 1927 provides the more notable scenery as we see how the women dressed at the time, the sometimes decaying signs on the buildings hinting at establishments that existed in the 19th Century. Both Ben and Rose are to find answers to their obsessions proving once again that the world often snaps to attention for people willing to take risks.
In another bow to the expression “the book was better,” the heavy novel, a favorite among middle-schoolers who can read, can be put down now and then when the eyes glaze over. Such a luxury is not available on the big screen. The scenes in the museum are overextended to the point of viewer frustration, and the visuals, which have been touted by some critics as the most notable aspect of the movie, are nothing to write home about, not even to rural Minnesota.
Rated PG. 117 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – B-
Overall – C+