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"WONDERSTRUCK"
(2017) (Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Two deaf children, fifty years apart, run away from home to seek out a parent.
PLOT:
It's 1977 and Ben (OAKES FEGLEY) is a boy living in Minnesota with his relatives following the car accident death of his mother that essentially left him orphaned, what with his mother never informing him of his father's identity. While reminiscing in his old house and finding a clue he believes could help him learn about and maybe meet his father, Ben is struck by lightning while on the phone.

That leaves him deaf but undeterred and he leaves the hospital without informing anyone and takes a bus to New York City to continue his quest. He's befriended and helped by a young boy, Jamie (JADEN MICHAEL), whose father works in the city museum and eventually meets an older woman, Rose (JULIANNE MOORE), who might have answers for him.

Fifty years earlier, Rose (MILLICENT SIMMONDS) is also a deaf child although she's never been able to hear. With a strict, disciplinarian father, Rose escapes in the world of silent movies where she can understand what's being said -- thanks to dialogue title cards -- and seems enamored with silent film star Lillian Mayhew (JULIANNE MOORE). Like her counterpart a half-century later, Rose runs away from home to New York City in hopes of finding her idol who ends up having a connection with the girl.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
There's a moment in director Todd Haynes' latest film, "Wonderstruck," that had me considering something I never really thought of before. In a part that's set fifty years earlier than the other half of the story, a young girl escapes from her emotionally abusive father by heading to the movies.

In a pre-Internet era, that wasn't that unusual, but the unique thing about this bit of familial escapism is that the girl is deaf and she's attending a silent film. The advantage of that, of course, was that such movies did not have audible dialogue, but instead had title cards that everyone in the audience read together. Thus, the deaf and hearing-impaired could enjoy movies alongside the rest of the general population.

But when "talkies" came about, silent movies fell by the wayside and eventually disappeared, that equalizer went away as well, and the hearing-impaired community was without a way of fully enjoying movies on an equal level until many, many decades later when captioning and audio enhancements were finally added to theaters, as well as home video and TV.

In the moment I was referring to, the young girl, Rose -- who's enamored with a silent film actress (Julianne Moore ) -- is leaving the theater and an advertisement on the outside of the movie house states that such a "talkie" is coming soon. Of course, the girl wouldn't realize the future ramifications of that, such as many a silent film star being put out of work because they didn't have a pleasant sounding voice, or that the girl would lose a significant aspect of her favorite form of escapism.

The fact that so much of the film deals with being deaf means it's somewhat surprising those points don't get more attention in this offering. Instead, Haynes and screenwriter Brian Selznick (who's adapted his own 2011 novel of the same name) are more interested in parent-child relationships and specifically kids who are literally and figuratively missing a parent and seeking them out.

When we first see Rose (a terrific Millicent Simmonds who's deaf in real life), we only see her father berating her over any matter (all without heard dialogue on our part) and thus she seeks out -- and runs away from home in search of) a maternal figure in Moore's mother-like movie characters, a point that has a surprising revelation a bit later in the film.

The other half of the plot concerns a boy (Oakes Fegley) in late 1970s Minnesota who's recently lost his mother in an auto accident, a tragedy exacerbated by the fact that she never got around to informing him of his father's identity. After discovering a clue that might lead him to that man, the boy is struck by lightning through a telephone line, loses his hearing, and ends up in the hospital. Undeterred, he leaves without telling anyone, hops on a bus for the Big Apple, and hopes he'll be able to find his dad and solve that parental mystery.

Like his counterpart from half a century early, however, he's hampered by his lack of hearing and must contend with everything that follows from that state. Of course, one wouldn't need to hear the instructions to understand that the obvious viewer mystery that must be solved is how the two characters and their stories are connected.

I won't give away any spoilers, but it's not that difficult to figure out and is of the gentle persuasion rather than the knock your socks off, twisteroo some could be anticipating. It's all decently handled, the performances from the two kid performances are solid, and everything looks fine from a technical standpoint (the earlier scenes presented in black and white, accompanied by a silent film style score), but this one simply didn't grab or hold my attention. It's not bad by any means. I just found it underwhelming, which is a bit of a disappointment since you don't have many films -- especially featuring kids -- where one, let alone two major characters are deaf.

And no, I don't think having the film focus more on silent films suddenly become dinosaurs about to go extinct and with that hearing-impaired people's enjoyment of going to the movies being wiped out for decades would have greatly helped. But at least it might have made it more interesting. Generally okay but not something I'd likely seek out again or stop upon during some TV channel surfing, "Wonderstruck" didn't leave me feeling that descriptive way. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 10, 2017 / Posted November 3, 2017


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