5 Popcorn Buckets

Of the films showcased at this year’s New York Film Festival, few reach the heart with the magic of Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck. This meaningful look at two children searching for truth captivates from its opening frame until, two hours later, we don’t want to let go.

Like any Haynes film, Wonderstruck uses the visual language of film to tell its story in ways dialogue cannot create. Rather than burden the piece with too many words, Haynes lets images tell the tale and enables expression to advance the narrative. That the plot involves the challenges of the hearing impaired enhances the power of this approach. But Haynes refuses to let the challenges these children face define what experiences they savor. Instead he uses their silence to inspire us to discover what’s behind the sounds we hear.

The film tells two stories. One, in striking black-and-white, uses the conventions of silent film (precise camera movement, wall-to-wall music) to follow a young, deaf girl in the 1920’s who longs to escape her palatial, but unhappy, family home in New Jersey. She leaves the house, boards a ferry for New York City and searches for the elusive stage and screen star she idolizes. Ultimately the girl finds herself inside the Museum of Natural History seeking solace among dioramas that depict a freedom she longs to experience.

In alternating sequences, the film jumps ahead 50 years to the tough urban jungle of 1970’s Manhattan. Suffering hearing loss resulting from a home accident, a young boy searches the city to find the father he has never met. Wandering the streets of the Upper West Side, he painfully tries to solve a puzzle with limited clues. Everything seems to go wrong until he, as well, finds himself inside the Museum of Natural History, surprisingly close to solving a mystery that frames his life.

A director less comfortable with nuance might toss too many clues to how these situations could ultimately resolve and connect. But Haynes is too savvy to descend into the obvious. Instead he takes his time to carefully develop each narrative and explore every character to let the story naturally progress. Never does he rely on obvious approaches that could dilute the drama. Instead Haynes focuses on what will make each moment authentic to the story and meaningful to the audience.

The director secures masterful turns from his leads. As the young girl, Millicent Simmons uses her expressive face to register every possible feeling a lost girl might experience. Her work beautifully matches the intensity of Oakes Fegley’s take on the young boy. This remarkable child actor makes us believe every moment of his quest. As a kind woman who steps in at a needed moment, Julianne Moore radiates with authenticity and command. Though the role is small, Moore makes the most of each sequence.

Ultimately, Wonderstruck belongs to Todd Haynes, a director who conveys truth on screen with an intensity few can match. He makes us believe the extraordinary is within reach. And that truth can feel oh so comfortable once secured.

Film Nutritional Value: Wonderstruck

  • Content: High. How two children look for truth in fundamental relationships becomes a meaningful journey for anyone searching for a sense of home.
  • Entertainment: High. While the story may sound somber, it’s filled with humanity and humor as director Todd Haynes brings the characters to life in two distinct time periods.
  • Message: High. No matter where home may be, and what relationships matter, the film reminds us that we have opportunities every day to connect with people who matter.
  • Relevance: High. Any time children can visit times from the past rich with significance is an opportunity for everyone to learn something new.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Use sharing this film with your children as an opportunity to discuss how, each day, we can connect wherever we can.

Wonderstruck is rated PG for thematic moments and smoking. The film runs 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Todd Haynes brings his magic to Carol

By Mark Schumann

Father of Three

5 Popcorn Buckets

As Todd Haynes celebrates the reaction to Wonderstruck at this year’s New York Film Festival, we remember when his interpretation of Carol premiered at the 2015 event.

In that landmark film – a highlight of the festival two years ago – we first see a well-dressed woman walking into a department store in search of the perfect gift for her daughter. As she scans the displays for possible items, she notices a captivating woman, a lady of such engaging expression that the shopper forgets, for a moment, why she came to the store. Suddenly the task to purchase becomes less important than the opportunity to engage. After all, how often do people get the chance to redefine their lives?

As he did with the memorable Far From Heaven in 2002, director Todd Haynes explores the shadows of forbidden relationships in the remarkable Carol. While the earlier piece revisits the glossy late 1950’s – in the lush style of director Douglas Sirk – Carol creates a darker view. Instead of decorating the drama with picture-perfect panoramas of a New England village, Haynes explores a darkened Manhattan trying to find its rhythm after the tension of World War II. As if anticipating what his daring characters will face, Haynes pictures a stark environment where people search for ways to connect while the world anxiously observes.

A stylish woman trapped in a cardboard marriage, Carol dreams of meeting someone she can unconditionally love. That she searches for this relationship among the women of Manhattan conflicts with a time period when people cannot freely express such romantic aspirations. As the women begin to explore how they care for each other, Haynes’ camera acknowledges how others may not be prepared for what they see. The sun never shines on his world – defined by its shadows – as the women try to define what they can mean to each other in a world that refuses to permits such a relationship to flourish. Against all odds they try to play by their own rules. But, in the 1950s, people who reach beyond tradition can get caught.

Such rich characters offer two actresses many opportunities to shine. We expect Cate Blanchett, in her second award-worthy performance this year, to excel at a character of such rich layers. While this portrayal may initially seem a careful variation of other roles she has played, including Blue Jasmine for which she won an Oscar, we soon realize how subtle a transformation she maneuvers. With each glance, Blanchett creates a sense of mystery, telling us little about what this woman thinks, and forcing us to discover what happens inside her mind and heart. As the object of Blanchett’s affection, Rooney Mara is perfectly pitched as a lady who may be less timid than she suggests. With her bright eyes and broad expressions, she captures the essence someone who hopes that danger will enter her life. And she’s not disappointed.

For Haynes, the film is another triumph in his independent march to cinema honors. Rather than look at the tensions of an earlier time through a contemporary lens, he examines how people of a long-ago period would react to complexity. By refusing to let the characters express themselves with words of 2015, Haynes recreates a time when people can say so little about what they really feel. This tension makes Carol worth seeing. And impossible to forget. Just like his new film, Wonderstruck.

Film Nutritional Value: Carol

  • Content: High. Patricia Highsmith’s daring novel about forbidden love becomes a breathtaking movie about people discovering what love can be. And may require.
  • Entertainment: High. With two strong actresses investing their souls in the characters they play, Carol never lets our eyes or thoughts wander from what we experience on screen.
  • Message: High. While director Todd Haynes is too careful a moviemaker to make his points too obvious, he lets us discover what these women, and how they learn to care for each other, teach us about the layers of relationships.
  • Relevance: High. While this is not a film for the family, it does offer parents the chance to talk with older teenagers about the realities that any relationship must manage.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Sharing this film with older teenagers can give parents a prompt to talk through how the demands on relationships may have changed over the years. Or not.

Carol is rated R for sexual/nudity and brief language. The film runs 118 minutes. It is available on streaming services.