Directed by Todd Haynes.
Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael, Julianne Moore, and Michelle Williams.
Set in 1927 and 1977, Wonderstruck simultaneously tells the tales of two deaf children coping with their impairment and searching for familial love in their respective eras.
Wonderstruck boasts beautiful craftsmanship and sweet performances by its young actors, but unlike previous works by Todd Haynes this artistry isn’t accompanied with a real emotional punch.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by illustrator and author Brian Selznick, who also penned ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ – the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The similarities are obvious: orphaned children, adventure in a city, self-discovery, and the use of cinemas, bookshops and museums as key locations. Selznick’s source material famously encouraged Scorsese to push his creative boundaries – and Haynes has done so as well – however, both directors have ended up with features that are less than the sum of their dazzling parts.
Wonderstruck packs in two individual narratives that are told as parallel stories. It opens in Minnesota in 1977 where Ben (Oakes Fegley) remembers pleading with his now deceased mother (Michelle Williams) to reveal the identity of his dad. While staying with his aunt and cousins, the pre-teen boy sneaks into his old home one night and discovers a clue in the form of a bookmark from a New York City store. Ben excitedly dials the number but a storm suddenly causes a freak electrical accident which leaves him completely deaf. Though upset by this sensory loss, Ben decides he must go to the Big Apple to learn about his parents’ relationship.
Lack of hearing is the norm for Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a girl from New Jersey living with her strict and foreboding father. It’s 1927 and Rose finds solace in the popular silent films of the day. She spends her time at the pictures and later pastes articles and photos of Hollywood stars, in particular an actress played by Julianne Moore, in her scrapbook. When news emerges of a Broadway stage appearance by Moore’s glamorous character, Rose runs off to the city to see her. Wonderstruck tastefully intercuts the children’s lives as they escape to Manhattan in search of family connections, love and meaning.
With titles such as Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There and Carol to his name, Haynes is considered a modern master of period dramas – and Wonderstruck certainly confirms his flair for bringing past decades to the screen. Jazz age, black and white 1927 contrasts nicely with bright and bold 1977. There are some excellent scenes with Ben, fresh off the bus from the Midwest, wandering through the grimy and dangerous streets of New York. He curiously watches people sporting shaggy hair, crop tops, vests and bell-bottoms. Lifting those visuals is Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score, often the only sound in the movie’s frequent dialogue-free chapters.
Given Williams and Moore’s limited supporting parts, Wonderstruck relies on Fegley and Simmonds to carry the story. Fegley does his best with Ben, whose main feelings appear to be doleful and amazement. On the other hand, Simmonds is a revelation – the deaf 14-year-old gently conveys vulnerability, joy, awe and determination with her expressions and sign language.
The weak spot here is Selznick’s screenplay. Wonderstruck starts strong, then gradually becomes too whimsical and even dull, and quickly wraps Ben and Rose’s destinies together a little too neatly in the final act. The movie seems designed for mood and ambiance rather than allowing audiences to invest themselves in the young pair’s heartache and daring journey. The result is a piece of cinema which is exquisite to look at, though not fully satisfying or memorable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★