Todd Haynes’ latest film “Wonderstruck” is not as wondrous as its very title suggests. Although there are a number of nice moments of charm and innocence, the movie is unfortunately hampered by its rather flat, contrived storytelling, and I must confess that it was sometimes difficult for me to care about its story and characters even though I admired some of its good elements including authentic period atmosphere and solid lead performances.
During the first two acts of its story, the movie alternates between two different storylines. While the first storyline is about a young boy living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, 1977, the second one is about a young deaf girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, 1922, and they are respectively presented via each own distinctive style and mood. While the first one is shot in color, the second one is shot in black and white, and it has no sound except music for not only evoking the silent black and white film of the 1920s but also reflecting its young heroine’s disability.
In the beginning, we get to know a bit about how Ben (Oakes Fegley), the young boy in the first storyline, has been haunted by the memories of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), who recently died because of a tragic car accident. While his aunt’s family provides him a comfortable place to live, Ben cannot help but think more of his mother, and he also becomes more curious about his absent father, about whom his mother did not talk much for some reason.
On one day, while searching through his mother’s belongings, Ben comes across a clue which may lead him to his father. It is a small book about museum, and the book contains the address of a certain bookshop located in New York City. Convinced that the bookshop is where his father lives, Ben decides to go to New York City alone, even though he happens to lose his hearing due to an unlucky incident.
Of course, things do not go well for Ben right from when he eventually arrives in New York City, and he soon finds himself lost in this big city, but then he comes across a black kid named Jamie (Jaden Michael). Although their first encounter is a little awkward due to Ben’s acquired disability, they get closer to each other after a playful moment unfolded around in the American Museum of Natural History, where Jamie usually spends time while his divorce father is working there. Jamie later shows Ben his private place somewhere in the museum, and Ben comes to get some rest there although he is still determined to find where his father is.
Ben’s journey is frequently intercut with the journey of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), the young deaf girl of the second storyline. For a personal reason which will be revealed later, Rose has been obsessive about a famous silent movie star named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and we observe how adamant Rose is in her yearning toward Mayhew. She attentively watches Mayhew’s latest silent film at a local theater even though she cannot hear the accompanying organ performance, and she has also collected many newspaper and magazine articles about Mayhew in her scrapbook.
While she lives in an affluent environment thanks to her rich father, Rose feels suffocated especially when her father pushes herself into a private lesson, so she decides to run away from her house to go to New York City and then meet Mayhew. As soon as she arrives in New York City, she sees how vulnerable she is as a deaf person, but that does not daunt her at all, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that 1) she finally comes to meet Mayhew and 2) her journey also comes to overlap with Ben’s.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Brian Selznick, who is the author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which is, as some of you already know, the basis of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” (2011). Like “Hugo”, “Wonderstruck” attempts to generate the sense of innocent wonder to engage and touch us, but Selznick’s adapted screenplay fails to maintain enough narrative momentum to hold our attention, and the movie stumbles from time to time as awkwardly going back and forth between its two storylines. While these two storylines eventually converge on the last act as expected, the result feels perfunctory instead of being satisfactory, and the final scene coupled with a certain big incident which did happen in New York City in 1977 does not feel as magical as intended.
At least, the movie is admirable on technical aspects. While cinematographer Edward Lachman, who was Oscar-nominated for his previous collaboration with Haynes in “Carol” (2015), did an impeccable job of establishing two very different period atmospheres on the screen, the production design by Mark Friedberg and the costume by Sandy Powell are bounteous with small and big details to notice, and Carter Burwell’s score is impressive especially during the scenes associated with Rose.
The main cast members of the movie handle well their archetype characters. Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, and Jaden Michael are believable in their respective roles, and Simmonds, who recently drew more attention thanks to her fine performance in “A Quiet Place” (2018), is simply wonderful as deftly carrying her part in the movie alone. While never overshadowing the young performers in the film, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, and Cory Michael Smith fill their supporting roles as required, and Moore has some fun with her movie star character.
“Wonderstruck” is not a total failure at all, but it is not as successful as Haynes’s best works such as “Far from Heaven” (2002) and “Carol”. I clearly saw what the movie attempted to do, and I was ready to become emotionally involved in its story and characters, but I only felt disappointed and dissatisfied mainly due to its weak narrative. There is some magic indeed, but that is not enough in my trivial opinion, and I think you will have a more satisfying time with “Hugo”, which is certainly a better film in comparison.