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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Wonderstruck is based on author-illustrator Brian Selznick's award-winning novel, which follows two deaf 12-year-old characters -- one in 1977 and one in 1927 -- as they run away from home to New York City to look for family members and eventually end up at the American Museum of Natural History. Like Hugo, which is also based on a Selznick novel, this is a family-friendly historical adventure that explores similar themes of family, friendship, and the importance of perseverance, curiosity, art, and science. There's not too much iffy stuff (other than the "running away" situation, of course), but the half that occurs in the 1920s is black and white and silent and may be difficult for younger viewers to follow. There are also a few potentially upsetting scenes, including nightmares about scary wolves, an angry-looking father yelling at his daughter, a boy losing his hearing after being electrocuted (via lightning), and a young character getting all his money stolen in New York City. Characters smoke, and there are a few uses of words like "shut up" and "oh my God."
What's the story?
Based on Brian Selznick's award-winning 2011 book, Wonderstruck chronicles the adventures of two 12-year-old characters 50 years apart. In 1977 Minnesota, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is grieving the death of his single mother (Michelle Williams), who died in an accident before she could tell Ben anything about his father. He frequently dreams of wolves. And in 1927 New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is obsessed with silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and would rather make paper models of cities or attend matinees than attend tutoring sessions. While rifling through his mom's belongings, Ben comes across a copy of an old book called Wonderstruck and finds a New York City bookstore bookmark with the inscription "Love, Danny" inside. When he tries to call the bookstore's number during a storm, lightning travels through the phone line, rendering him deaf. Back in 1927, we discover that Rose, too, is deaf. Both stories lead to the tweens running away to New York City and, more specifically, to the American Museum of Natural History, which plays a key role in the film. Eventually, Ben and Rose's adventures in the city converge in an unexpected way.
Is it any good?
It says something about the power of Selznick's books that first Martin Scorsese and now Todd Haynes has lovingly adapted his beautiful stories into films that adults and older children enjoy. Like Scorsese, Haynes had never made a family-friendly film before tackling Selznick's unique dual-narrative story. In the book, Rose's 1927 arc is rendered via illustrations, while Ben's is in text; in the movie, Haynes tackles the contrast by making Rose's storyline a silent, black-and-white film with swelling, captivating music by composer Carter Burwell. Since audiences can't hear the 1920s dialogue, Haynes hired mostly deaf actors to play hearing characters. Back in Ben's timeline, we hear and see the bustling, gritty, colorful world of New York City in the late '70s -- except for moments when Haynes wants to emphasize Ben's new deafness. The contrasts are sharp -- color, sounds, and a full 50 years -- but the magical power of New York City (muggers, crowded streets, potential dangers, and all) is clear in both narratives.
The young actors do a terrific job conveying the frustration, curiosity, heartache, and wonder they feel (sometimes all at once). Moore, one of Haynes' on-screen muses and best collaborators, binds the story together, playing a character in each time period. Williams, who's always wonderful, doesn't disappoint in her small role as Ben's mom, who appears in several flashbacks. And each young main character has a standout helper: Ben nearly instantly makes a friend -- Jamie (Jaden Michael), a young Puerto Rican boy whose father is a security guard at the museum -- while Rose finds her much older brother, Walter (Cory Michael Smith), who takes in his little sister. Haynes remains true to Selznick's exploration of museums, curators, the World's Fair, theater, and the natural sciences, and it's such a joy to see a beloved book so well captured.
Talk to your kids about ...
How does the film portray Rose's and Ben's deafness? Why do you think few films and TV shows focus on deaf characters -- and people with disabilities in general?
What is the movie's message about the importance of museums? Does it make you want to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City? What are your favorite museums?
Talk about how the book's dual narration translates to the screen. What do you think of the filmmaker's decision to depict the 1920s as silent? Did you prefer one character's story to the other? What did you think of the ending?
- In theaters: October 20, 2017
- Cast: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds
- Director: Todd Haynes
- Studio: Amazon Studios
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Adventures, Book characters
- Character strengths: Curiosity, Perseverance
- Run time: 117 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements and smoking
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
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