Wonderstruck [2017] – A Visually Mesmerizing Family Drama that Lacks Emotional Punch

Acclaimed American film-maker Todd Haynes’ works mostly focuses on interpersonal dynamics and interior lives of his characters. Instead of portraying sweeping sociological narratives, he chooses to ponder upon individual’s alienation and aloneness in the society through foggy, melancholic color palettes and intimate interpersonal exchanges. I like the poetic stillness he perpetuates throughout his aesthetics, as the narrative fragments gradually burrows itself into story minutiae. On first look, Haynes’ recent film Wonderstruck (2017) seems like a huge departure from his themes. Wonderstruck is based on an illustrated YA novel by Brian Selznick (writer of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was adapted by Martin Scorsese). It’s an unruffled chronicle of wonders of childhood and similar to Hugo, Wonderstruck celebrates the silent cinema-era with a tinge of nostalgia. From his heavily controversial and bizarre debut feature, Poison (1991) to the deeply affecting tale of sexuality and friendship, Carol (2015), Haynes’ vision was predominantly occupied with adult themes. While Wonderstruck couldn’t be categorized as a movie for the over-18 crowd, it still retains Haynes’ almost-obsessive quality of capturing period and historical details, and furthermore relies more on atmosphere and mood than particulars of the plot.

In fact, there’s not much to Wonderstruck in the form of plot. When the plot details reach a full circle, it seems dull and frustrating when compared with the transcendent, sublime quality of the visuals. Similar to Todd Haynes' magnificent last feature (Carol), this film is also a period tale set in New York who takes impressive effort to recreate smallest of the atmospheric details. The narrative revolves around a pre-teen girl from the 1920s and a pre-teen boy in the 1970s. In 1977, 12 year old Minnesota boy Ben (Pete’s Dragon fame Oakes Fegley) faces two huge losses back to back: his librarian single mother (Michelle Williams) has died in an accident; Ben loses his hearing to a strange lightning strike accident.  Among his mother’s things, Ben discovers an old book called “Wonderstruck,” about the American Museum of Natural History, situated on Central Park West, New York. Inside the book, there’s bookmark with the address of a bookshop. Ben hops into a bus to go to New York and hopes that the address belongs to his absentee father.

In 1927, rich yet lonely 12-year-old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives with her strict father (James Urbaniak) in Hoboken, New Jersey. She’s also deaf-mute, a detail that further advances her isolation. She finds solace in visiting the local theater and watch films of her favorite actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). The name of the actress and the title of the movie (Daughter of The Storm) Rose watches is a nod to director D.W. Griffith (he made 'Orphans of the Storm' in 1921). Moreover, Moore's Mayhew pays rapturous homage to Lilian Gish, the great silent movie star. This part set in 1927 is silent or dialogue-free. The characters' monochromatic world and their fiercely expressed emotions are accompanied by a orchestral score. Rose’s only solace seems to come to its end, as the onset of talkie-cinema spreads throughout the town. She immediately decides to take the Hudson River ferry and head to New York to search for the star actress. Circumstances however, make Ben and Rose to pass through American Museum of Natural History. Gradually, through the discoveries within museum’s cabinet of marvels and dioramas, the different era kids’ profound, unbreakable connection is revealed.

Wonderstruck is one of Haynes’ predominantly music-driven work with Deodato’s Jazz version of Also Sprach Zarathustra’, David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and also Carter Burwell’s swelling orchestral soundtrack. Music elevates sensory nature of the proceedings, since when combined with rich visuals, the musical tracks provides a way of knowing the characters’ innermost feelings. And, most of the mood shifts in the film resembles that of classical music pieces with different tempos and unanticipated operatic intensity. Despite Haynes’ marvelous showcase of his storytelling powers, Wonderstruck falls short because of its leaden plot that’s nowhere as fascinating or emotionally resonant as Haynes’ commitment to lyrical aesthetics. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s virtuosic film-making style in Hugo, director Haynes perfectly channels his film-geek jubilation and penchant for historical details in a succinct and glorious manner. Yet, Wonderstruck’s narrative crux feels a bit sluggish and its conflicts remain blatantly contrived. For best and worst, the utterly simplistic family conflict at the centre looks like an ancient museum piece. It could be admired for possessing certain singular qualities, yet the narrative keeps us at an observational distance. While, the movie’s technical qualities extract amazement from us, its emotional dimension never goes beyond the well-adorned surface. Of the two historical periods, I liked the 1927 one a lot and newcomer Millicent Simmonds’ low-key performance is much memorable and affecting. 



Wonderstruck (115 minutes) tells the tale of two isolated children trying to find a family and fresh ways to communicate with the world. It is at once whimsical and frustrating with unbelievably pretty compositions and a less engaging plot-line. 

Wonder [2017] – A Well-Acted Feel-Good Drama with Few Heavy-Handed Moments

Stephen Chboksy’s Wonder (2017) is based on R.J.Palacio’s best-selling children’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of a tween boy named August Pullman (aka Auggie), who was born with facial deformity, a rare congenital condition that’s termed as ‘Treacher Collins Syndrome’. The film opens with Auggie’s sharp voice-over remarking, “I know I'm not an ordinary kid…ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go….I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.” Throughout this opening voice-over Auggie hides his face within astronaut’s helmet. A little later when the face is revealed, we, like the many strangers Auggie faces, stare at him which is involuntarily accompanied by feelings of pity. And the make-up design by Arjen Tuiten plus the little CGI tweaks perfectly brings alive Auggie’s face, aligning finely with readers’ imagination of the boy’s face. Soon, we get to look past the face, pulled-in by ‘Room’ fame Jacob Tremblay’s heart-warming performance.

RJ Palacio’s novel became a YA phenomenon. It’s an unapologetically sentimental work about the essential and powerful nature of kindness. Director Stephen Chboksy, who himself has written a successful YA novel and filmed it (Perks of Being A Wallflower), mostly understands how to get to the heart of the story without yielding to emotional falsity. When the film starts Auggie’s parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) decide to enroll him in fifth grade. Having been home-schooled his entire life, the boy must now to prepare himself for facing a larger audience – a setting that’s guaranteed to be cruel. “It's like leading a lamb to the slaughter,” says Auggie’s cool, friendly dad. But mom feels it is time for him to go into the world and try to fend for himself. The boy is also reluctant to give up the kid-sized NASA space helmet he uses to deflect stares in the street. Still, to struggle and win over the new setting of bullying and thoughtless behavior, Auggie has to take off without the comfort of the helmet.

Wonder does contains couple of moments or more where it takes shortcuts to squeeze out emotions. But the larger part of narrative boasts a level-headed attitude and a big heart. With a running time close to two hours, Wonder might make viewers wonder about the humdrum of sticking to affluent ten year old’s perspective, even though he has an extraordinary heart. Thankfully, staying true to the novel’s tone, screenwriters Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, and Chbosky weaves the story through the viewpoint of multiple characters, bringing to surface distinctly individualistic problems that are invisible when looked from the other side. This jumping narrative structure doesn’t work as perfectly as in the novel format. However, this approach makes ‘Wonder’ a whole-hearted family tale than just exhibiting the troubles and aspirations of Auggie.

Although Jacob Tremblay’s intuitive acting skills and 90 minute make-up application occupies a great place in the film’s marketing campaign, the other very interesting aspect of Wonder is Izabela Vidovic, who plays Olivia Pullman, 15 year old sister of Auggie. Olivia is the ‘normal’ kid, but she has also put up with feelings of being an invisible child. As she bitter-sweetly states, ‘family revolves around the son’. In a conventional narrative trajectory, Olivia would be acting out or gain grim sense of satisfaction by being nasty to Auggie. But here the caring, average teenager copes with life’s challenges in a genuine, organic manner. We think her decision to conceal Auggie’s existence from the boyfriend would lead to some dramatic confrontation later. What ensues is much more poignant and naturalistic. Izabela shows how a performance could remain equally arresting by just being nice and kind enough. Usually in the films pushed under ‘feel-good’ or ‘inspirational’ category, the secondary characters simply remain as a device or a caricature to help boost the central character. Interestingly, in Wonder, the omnipresent earnestness to understand others’ problems makes it a cut above those overtly sentimental works.

Not every plot point and character decision in Wonder is precisely calibrated to manipulate our emotions. The big touching moments happen in a more organic manner. Take Auggie’s reconciliation with his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) over a game of mine-craft or Auggie’s reaction to the death of their family’s beloved dog Daisy or Auggie’s first fight in the wilderness camp, those pivotal moments are handled in a understated and restrained manner. Olivia’s instantly great performance in the play or Auggie’s surprising award truly comes off as sure-fire sequences conceived to exploit viewers’ sentiments. And it exactly does that, although the good all-around performances didn’t keep me from shedding joyous tears in those emotionally manipulative scenarios. If there is a weakening factor in Wonder, then it must be its near-obsession in displaying that everything turned good for everyone. The very real problems like stress and money are largely absent in the narrative. Despite feeling for Auggie and his family, the very minimal exploration of the parents’ mental and financial strain and their unfaltering behavior simply keeps them as angelic creatures (irrespective of the dynamic presence of Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson). Stephen Chbosky’s uneven pacing plus his penchant for hitting few emotional notes too hard (for eg, the totally unnecessary scene featuring the grandma) also dissipates some of the narrative’s cuddly warmth. Nevertheless, the core story’s themes of compassion, tolerance, and kindness stay intact to ring out its commendable message.



A Genius Coder’s Vacuous Life and Hazardous Delusions of Grandeur

Spoilers Ahead….

We’d all like to have our own virtual world to play God. Or at least be part of a subculture that’s so cool and unconventional compared to the allegedly mainstream ones. But what if it consequently leads to the onset of virtual purgatory and virulent fandom? What if the subculture is riddled with self-aggrandizing abusers who unmercifully quell any critique or when they try to be the obnoxious gate-keepers? The now famous 1st episode in the 4th season of sci-fi anthology TV series Black Mirror titled ‘USS Callister’ poses such eerily relevant questions. Scripted by William Bridges & Brooker, and directed by Toby Haynes, the USS Callister serves us a tributary piece to the original Star Trek series as well as a commentary on the show’s certain circumscribed views (sexism, racist stereotypes, white male entitlement, etc) plus its extremely devoted fandom. USS Callister is also one of the most darkly comical episodes of the series with a comparatively hopeful denouement.

What’s primarily interesting about this episode of Black Mirror is the way the roles are reversed. There are sentient lives existing within digital realm which are more ‘human’ than the humans of real world. Then there’s our frustrated and ridiculed genius programmer Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the guy for whom we initially feel nothing but sadness. Alas, his virtual identity turns out be that of a despicable tyrant. Instead of taking the usual path of ‘smart AI enslaving humanity’, USS Callister scrutinizes much relevant and relatable threat plaguing our digitized world: human beings exploiting modern technological tools to satisfy their dangerous impulses by turning possibly sentient digital beings into guinea pigs. It’s a scenario that alternately looks absurd and horrific, yet much refreshing than the usual dose of AI planning hostile takeover of humanity.

Robert Daly is viewed as the epitome of ‘toxic masculinity’. That would be unnecessarily pigeonholing a character that’s much more profound than what the aforementioned label suggests. Of course, the fourth season’s array of female protagonists are written in a way to challenge the traditional narrative plastered upon femininity and these women stand up to technology-aided tyranny to reclaim their power. But all the episodes in the season, including USS Callister, don’t apply the faux-feminist narrative that pits men vs women. Robert Daly is a grown man with a teenager’s wide-eyed awe for his favorite cosmos exploring TV show. He is also a gifted game designer/genius programmer behind a virtual-reality video game known as ‘Infinity’. Infinity is a hyper-realistic virtual reality platform and Daly has made a very detailed prototype of Infinity, inspired by his adoration for the sci-fi TV show. In fact, the episode opens with an old TV set's 4:3 aspect ratio with Daly playing Captain of the space fleet USS Callister, providing orders to his frightened multi-ethnic crew members. After saving the crew from the impending danger, he receives round of cheers and kisses from female crew members.

The scene abruptly cuts and we see Daly walking through a dim-lit corporate office. This ‘real’ Daly has hunched shoulders, receding hairline and looks a bit overweight. He is uncomfortable in the office atmosphere and avoids any sort of conflict. Although he is the co-founder and chief technical officer of the company, he is underappreciated by his coworkers and belittled by CEO Walton (Jimmi Simpson), the very common corporate bloodsucker. Interestingly, the crew members in the gaming realm of USS Callister, happens to bear resemblance to Daly’s coworkers with Walton taking on the role of inept, fawning subordinate of Captain Daly. It becomes clear that Daly tries to purge his personal trauma by being nasty to his creations inside the virtual world. However, the crew members of Daly’s personalized world aren’t just disposable codes which stop to exist once after the player terminates the game. The digital avatars of Daly’s coworkers are not only identical to the real ones, but also are sentient beings, gifted (or cursed) with consciousness and all physical sensation of real human beings. Robert Daly has made these replicas by collecting and preserving swabs of their DNA. This makes the imprisoned life inside USS Callister as real as the life in the outside world.

The real world Daly is enamored by the new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milotti), a young coder. She is genuinely interested in meeting Daly, sees him as an inspiration. However, when Daly sees Nanette talking to Walton and overhears a rude comment from another co-worker about him directed towards Nanette, he decides to digitally clone (and punish) his new co-worker too. Unbeknownst to Daly, he actually seals his fate by this act, since the digital Nanette is not interesting in being trapped for eternity in the game, wearing mini-skirts and kissing the 'successful' Captain Daly. By the time, digital Nanette originates inside USS Callister, the episode entirely shifts away from the perspective of Daly and extinguishes the little sympathy we initially had for him. Soon, we learn that Daly is the God of this infinite digital universe and keeps the conscious digital simulacrums, compliant enough to play their silly roles in the game. He often shows his absolute power over them by either transforming them into grotesque creatures or by inflicting unimaginable torture methods. Furthermore, Daly is obsessed with puritanical vision of the TV show by making these sentient clones without sexual organs and butt-holes (as digital Walton says, he has taken away the basic pleasure of sitting on the toilet to push out the shit’). There’s nothing for these conscious simulacrums to alleviate boredom or the endless cycle of suffocation.

USS Callister predominantly examines the darker side of fan culture, where those forums toxic behavior is ironically opposite to the virtuous values taught by the adored piece of pop culture. Daly, despite designing his virtual world based on a series that focused on the betterment of the galaxy, upholds aggression and brutality. This is expressed in a comical manner in the scene digital Nanette murmurs, Mini-skirted damsels. A little cold for that in space”, to which Daly replies with a mix of anger and awkwardness, “That is just what a Bargradian sand warrior would say”. At this moment, Daly just behaves like a petty fan who can’t stand little bit of critique. On a broader note, he is just like all those psychopathic dictators who fancy themselves as the hero of the carefully calibrated narrative. In fact, in the end when he cackles maniacally and uses the word ‘Biblical’, Captain Daly pretty much comes off as a powerful villain. A truly unhinged fan can of course transform into villains of their own favorite TV show.

Black Mirror has repeatedly yet very imaginatively showcased how humanity will never stop from using the culture of technology to serve its darkest impulses. USS Callister is an apprehensible enlargement of the near-future fandom culture, whose self-absorbed dark fantasies can generate invisible pain and visible bleak consequences. Nevertheless, the episode serves as deconstruction of fan culture and not a call to entirely obliterate it. Its optimistic ending (uncharacteristic for Black Mirror episodes) asks the fandom take a broader view, instead of clinging to entitlement, prevalent within all of nerd culture. By the end, the new commander of USS Callister happens to be Nanette Cole, which isn’t adverting that women are the answer to toxic male-led fandom. It shows how one, regardless of gender, through understanding and empathy – values purported by any piece of pop culture – seek countless exciting adventures and escape purgatories (real or realistic-virtual ones). The absence of those values replaced with belief in rage and tyranny can only lead to entrapment like that of real & virtual Robert Daly. The true nightmare is not feeling powerless and isolated in the real world; it actually lies in remaining forever trapped in self-created nothingness, unable to exit from the silly virtual game.