“Wonderstruck” is a touching, heartfelt drama that does so many things well, but by the end falls short of being a truly memorable and impactful film.
Above all, the film boasts gorgeously conceived and rendered art and production design. The film’s use of special effects to bring to life imaginative plot beats is, in its own way, as innovative and breathtaking as anything you’ll see in a big budget blockbuster this year.
The film also features solid, engaging performances from its stars, both young and adult. With names like Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams in the cast, that should come as no surprise, but they’re not the leads here. The child actors in “Wonderstruck” do much of the heavy lifting, dramatically speaking, and they prove up to the task.
But for all that, the film comes up less than the sum of its parts. It’s lovely, but its touch is almost too light; certainly not enough to make a lasting impression.
What’s it about
Much of “Wonderstruck” is built around two parallel narratives separated in time by about 50 years.
In 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is generally kept out of sight by her strict well-to-do father, and escapes from her solitude through elaborate scrapbooks and dreams of her favorite silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Moore). When Rose discovers that Mayhew will be in New York City for a stage performance, she sneaks away from her New Jersey home onto a ferry to Manhattan, determined to see her idol in real life.
In 1977, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) was still recovering from a tragic family loss when he loses his hearing in a freak accident. Ben’s lived his whole life in Minnesota, so when he discovers a clue about the father he never knew that points to New York City, he escapes from his hospital bed onto a bus headed east, hoping to finally meet the man he’s always wondered about but never met.
Once both children reach New York City alone and unable to communicate (Rose has never learned sign language, and Ben hasn’t had time yet to learn), they’re both understandably overwhelmed. But their quests both lead them to similar places and unexpected discoveries, until finally the connection between their fates is revealed.
Jarring in translation
The screenplay for “Wonderstruck” comes from writer Brian Selznick, based his novel of the same name. The novel was Selznick’s follow-up to his acclaimed work “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which Martin Scorsese adapted into the 2011 film “Hugo.”
Selznick’s stylistic choice to tell this story in the two separate time periods most likely worked more effectively in print than it does on screen. Jumping back and forth between the two stories can work in novels with chapter or section breaks, but here, as in other films that try to work out that unique logistical challenge in book-to-film adaptation, the jumps feel jarring, and keep the film from finding an enjoyable pace for too long.
In fairness, the time jumping does provide director Todd Haynes (“Carol”, “Far from Heaven”) with the opportunity to creatively distinguish the two periods visually, which really is the central visual gimmick of “Wonderstruck.” Rose’s story is shown in black and white, with costuming and music inspired by the silent films Rose loves, while Ben’s story is sepia toned and set to the backdrop of the late 70s, and it’s cleverly and with great care for style and detail.
But because the story never flows smoothly, the joy and wonder audiences might have felt in those visual flourishes is unfortunately mitigated. For the patient movie viewer, this may not be much of an issue, but for others who just want a good, entertaining story that doesn’t drag, “Wonderstruck” may prove trying.
What does help “Wonderstruck” is its strong casting. Again, with names like Moore and Williams in the cast list, that should come as no surprise.
In particular, it’s no surprise that Moore delivers a beautiful performance in a challenging role here. She’s worked with director Haynes three times before, on 1995’s “Safe”, 2002’s “Far from Heaven” and 2007’s “I’m Not There”, and her work in “Far From Heaven” earned her an Oscar nomination.
But again, it’s the child stars who carry the day dramatically here – if you do get into “Wonderstruck” and find yourself tearing up a bit with its emotional story, it will be because of them. Oakes Fegley first got people’s attention in last year’s “Pete’s Dragon,” and here proves that those results weren’t a fluke.
So yes, for the cast, for Haynes’s clever and stylish visuals, and for a story that while maybe not paced very well does eventually tug at the heartstrings, “Wonderstruck” might just be a fun-filled cinematic escape. Especially if more conventional films in theaters currently don’t interest you, it should merit your attention.
Starring Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan and Michelle Williams.
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.