Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wonderstruck: Very well titled

Wonderstruck (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particularly reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.10.17

This one is pure magic.

Wholly enchanting.

Elaine (Michelle Williams) marvels, each evening, that her son Ben (Oakes Fegley) has
crammed even more stuff into the amateur natural history museum disguised as his
Director Todd Haynes orchestrates this slice of fantasy with the exquisite touch of a master conductor who understands the importance of each note played by every instrument. The music analogy is apt, because this film’s many delights include Carter Burwell’s amazing score: a continuous symphony of drama and delight that tells the story just as skillfully as the talented cast.

Haynes uses everything: images, sounds, music, color, puppetry, sketches and much, much more. All are blended with grace, whimsy and a true sense of wonder (with apologies for riffing on the title).

Such a talent for imagination — along with a delicate touch — are essential for anybody embracing the challenge of bringing a Brian Selznick book to the big screen. Martin Scorsese succeeded masterfully, with his 2011 adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (the film title shorted to Hugo). Now Haynes has duplicated this feat.

Selznick adapted his own book this time, and we shouldn’t be surprised by his skillful scripting debut. His “bookmaking” novels, replete with illustrations, are de facto screenplays to begin with: presented with a master raconteur’s gift for filling the readers’ minds with their own private movies.

I hesitate to explain anything, because Haynes and Selznick coyly tease and toy with us viewers: establishing little mysteries that surround the two primary characters, while mischievously using the cinematic form to dangle clues via sidebars, dreams, flashbacks and all manner of narrative trickery.

Our protagonists are Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), rebellious young adolescents somewhat askew from social norms. Both are lonely; both have transformed their bedrooms into veritable museums of stuff, all carefully notated, indexed and catalogued. Both are curators — an important term, for what follows — of their possessions, and of their discontent.

Rose endures a privileged life with a disciplinarian father (James Urbaniak) who shows her the warmth he might bestow upon a house plant. She finds solace by filling her bedroom with impressively detailed cityscapes constructed from paper and glue, and by scrapbooking the career of actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Ben, having just lost his mother to a traffic accident, chafes at having to live with his aunt, sharing a room with his snotty cousin. Flashbacks reveal the bond that Ben shared with his free-spirited mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), and the patience with which she puts up with his bedroom having grown into what feels like a branch of the nearest natural history museum.

But she stayed mute on one subject that dominates Ben’s thoughts: the identity of his father, who remains a nameless, faceless unknown. She knew, but always put Ben off, promising to reveal all “when the time was right.” Now, of course, the “right” time never will come.

Ben lives in the rural Minnesota community of Gunflint Lake; it’s the summer of 1977.

Rose lives in Hoboken, New Jersey; it’s early autumn in 1927.

Haynes cross-cuts between the two storylines, with distinct styles appropriate to each era. Ben’s saga takes place in color, with the hustle and bustle of ambient sound; his environment and cultural obsessions are appropriate to the time. Rose’s exploits unfold in monochrome, and without dialogue; emotion and narrative flow are enhanced by Burwell’s score and Simmonds’ incredibly expressive face.

The effect is much like the silent movies that Rose attends, in order to bathe in another melodrama featuring her idol, Lillian Mayhew.

While exploring his mother’s belongings one night, Ben chances upon a carefully wrapped New York City souvenir book; it contains a bookmark inscribed to Elaine, and signed “Love, Danny.” Could this be his father? Determined to find out, he sneaks away from his aunt and boards a bus bound for the Big Apple.

Rose, dissatisfied with merely scrapbooking Mayhew’s career, and seeing her as no more than images on a screen, thrills at the discovery that she’ll be starring in a Broadway stage play. The girl sneaks away from her father, and heads to New York.

The contrast, as they independently reach New York City, is striking. For Rose, it’s a dream come true: every bit as amazing — most particularly the theater district — as she imagined in her wildest dreams. Her eyes dance; her giddy smile never falters.

Ben hits a New York City Transit Authority station at the height of 1970s squalor and mayhem: a chaotic jumble of bustling activity that turns his quest — to find an independent bookstore that might not even exist any more — into an overwhelming nightmare.

And that’s all you’ll get from me.

Simmonds is achingly endearing in this impressive acting debut, her trusting little face melting into shattered chagrin when something disappoints her: a shift that’s physically painful to watch, given the skill with which she conveys emotion. She’s both plucky and vulnerable; there’s something about the way cinematographer Edward Lachman frames her, in monochrome, that makes her seem more fragile than usual. Her every move has us heart, mind and soul.

Fegley’s Ben is a tougher and more resilient, but at the end of the day he’s still a kid. Although undoubtedly comfortable and assured in his native town, being dumped into big, bad New York City is a tall order for any outsider, let alone a 12-year-old. Nor is this fish-out-of-water alienation Ben’s only challenge; he’s also operating at less than peak efficiency, for reasons that won’t be disclosed here.

More to the point, Ben has pinned all hope on something he knows is highly unlikely. As time passes, we see the bravado leak from Fegley’s face, his gaze growing increasingly nervous and worried.

As was the case with the similarly young protagonists in Hugo, Rose and Ben are thrust head-first into an adult world that too often is marked by loneliness, confusion and regret. And yet — and yet — Haines shapes his young stars’ performances in a manner that reassures us: These kids never lose their sense of magic and possibility.

Moore obviously had a great time over-emoting in the clips we see of the Lillian Mayhew melodramas that keep Rose transfixed in a movie theater. But Moore’s finest moments come in this film’s third act, reminding us of the nuanced and oh-so-precise performance she delivered under Haynes’ earlier guidance, in 2002’s “Far from Heaven.”

Williams makes the most of her brief flashback moments, particularly during one disarmingly poignant scene shared with Fegley, when Elaine gently tries to deflect Ben’s questions about his father. Jaden Michael is high spirits and unbridled enthusiasm as Jamie, a friendly and helpful boy Ben encounters in New York City.

Cory Michael Smith — recognized as the dangerously unbalanced Edward Nygma, on TV’s Gotham — is the opposite here: warmly trustworthy as Rose’s compassionate older brother, Walter.

Burwell’s thoroughly engaging orchestral score notwithstanding, Haynes also makes excellent use of a few iconic source songs, most notably David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Eumir Deodato’s jazz re-imagining of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Aside from the intensity of our involvement with Rose and Ben, this is a film — and story — for people who love books, music, museums, curios, lists and, well, stuff. Haynes and Selznick deftly blend everything with often ingenious creativity; I’ve not even mentioned production designer Mark Friedberg’s flat-out awesome miniatures and dioramas, or the impact of the Queens Museum’s amazing “Panorama of the City of New York,” built for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Although the highlights of Haynes’ film are legion, I’ve no doubt that some viewers will find it too slow, ludicrously contrived and eye-rollingly sentimental. Such individuals deserve our pity; obviously, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to believe in — and embrace — the giddy delights of true magic.

Wonderstruck would make a terrific double feature with Hugo. I can think of no finer compliment.

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