Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals] that you care for them?
For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened
You too might feel wonderstruck when you watch Todd Haynes new film based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel, the engaging story of two deaf children separated by some 50 years yet bound closely together by a mysterious bond. Everything about this film is wondrous, the parallel plots of the two children, the artistry of the director and cast, and the adroit editing with delightful transitions from 1977 to the 1927. The film celebrates the longings of children and the wonders of museums crammed with curiosities on display linking us to persons and objects across the years.
The first of the two children is 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, who awakens from a nightmare of being chased by wolves. He is mourning the sudden loss of his librarian mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), who had never resolved his burning questions about the father he had never known. She had always turned down his questions with a “Not now” and “at the right time.” Unfortunately, her death in an auto accident came before that “right time.” Now living with his aunt and uncle, Ben returns to his old house where he finds in his mother’s bedroom an antique book, actually an exhibition catalog called Cabinets of Wonder, in which he finds a bookmark with the imprint and address of a NYC bookstore. What really arouses his interest is the note to his mother from a man that is written upon it. He dials a number on the telephone while a violent storm rages outside. A lightning bolt strikes the house, knocking him unconscious. When he awakens in a hospital he is deaf. Soon he is on a bus headed for NYC and the bookstore where he hopes he will discover more about his father. Being a child, it apparently does not occur to him that the bookstore might no longer be there.
Fifty years earlier in Hoboken, New Jersey, 12-year-old deaf Rose ((Millicent Simmonds) lives unhappily with her divorced, overly strict father. Her refuge from her life of harsh treatment is at the cinema and in her bedroom where she clips photos of famous movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and pastes them into a scrapbook. Her other hobby is folding magazine pages into small skyscrapers and creating a miniature city with them. At the local theater she watches, while an organist plays a musical accompaniment, her movie idol’s latest picture, Daughter of the Storm, which cinephiles will recognize as a tribute to Lillian Gish in The Wind. All of Rose’s scenes are shot in black and white with no dialogue, just like the films of the time. Ironically, as the girl exits the theater, we see workmen putting up a large marquee banner informing the public that the theater will be closed while it is being renovated to show “all talking” movies.
One day, Rose reads that the actress will be appearing in a play in the City, so she sneaks out of her bedroom window just before her father comes up the stairs with her dreaded sign-language teacher. She sets out on foot, reaching Manhattan via ferry boat. The city is a wonder to her, a jumble of people and vehicles amidst towering buildings. When she learns where the play is being rehearsed, she manages to sneak into the theater—and we are let in on a secret. Discovered by the staff, there ensues a chase scene that leads her just ahead of a policeman to the Museum of Natural History, where the large “cabinet of curiosities,” featured in the old book that Ben will discover and bring with him on his journey in 1977.
Ben arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, sets off to find the bookstore, learns the hard way never to open your wallet on a NYC street to count your money, and, broke, arrives at the bookstore. A weather-beaten sign shows that Kincaid Bookstore once had occupied the dilapidated building. Fortunately, Ben had caught the eye of Jamie (Jaden Michael), a friendly African American boy walking with his father. He informs the visitor where the bookstore is now located. To make a complicated story short, the two become friends, Ben finding shelter in a storeroom at, yes, the American Museum of Natural History where Jamie’s father works.
The back and forth scenes of Ben and Rose exploring in wide-eyed wonder the dioramas, animal exhibits and curios of the vast place might take you back to your childhood visits to such a wonder-filled place. Ben is startled by the diorama featuring lunging wolves, recalling his nightmares, and he is highly intrigued by the small brass plate informing readers that the stuffed beasts are from Gunflint, Minnesota. We see the children are connected by the giant meteorite, around which, though 50 years apart, they run their fingers while circling about it. Each came to the Museum in search of a man, he boy for his father, and Rose for her older brother, and both quests will bring closure to their longings.
An even greater bond between the two I will leave for you to discover, except to reveal that it involves a marvelous, huge scale-model of New York City created for the 1964 World’s Fair. The vast display, filling a hall, had been so popular that it was saved and put on permanent display. Also, an important part of the climax is the famous 1977 New York Blackout, that permits the final scene of wonder so appreciated by three of the characters, as well as the author of Psalm 8. It really is an inspiring way to end the film! This is a delightful film for the family, as well as a good one for church groups (especially youth) to see and discuss.
This review with a set of questions will be in the November 2017 issue of VP.