To call a movie set in two distinct time periods a “film of two halves” might seem overly trite, but unfortunately, it’s the best possible descriptor for Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck. Taking place in both the 1920s and 1970s, the gulf in quality between these segments leaves Wonderstruck an inventive and warm-hearted effort that never coheres into something more remarkable.
We start in the ‘70s with bereaved 12 year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) rendered deaf by a lightning strike. Escaping from the hospital, he catches the bus from Michigan to New York in an attempt to find his absentee father. Meanwhile, the born-deaf Rose (Millicent Simmons) is embarking on a similar adventure in 1927. With its silent-movie visuals and music, the ‘20s sequences are unusual and soothingly lovely. Rose’s journey through a black-and-white New York is bouncy and entertaining, and you’ll end up wishing that it formed the entire film.
Brian Selznick, adapting his own book, inserts a slow-burn family mystery into Ben’s story that lacks the requisite intrigue and weight for its glacial reveals to be worthwhile, and composer Carter Burwell makes a rare misstep in his ‘70s score, which doesn’t fit the action or tone. The kids give spirited performances, and a chase through the New York Natural History Museum is as joyous as it should be, but their dialogue is unconvincing, a problem that the silent half can dodge entirely.
Haynes’ visuals are often magnificently imaginative, from the monochrome New York skyline to a side story told entirely by tiny figurines. Yet he never quite creates the incredible sense of place and time that Carol had.
As a family adventure, Wonderstruck is more than serviceable, and its portrayal of deaf child heroes could prove truly inspiring, but as Haynes’ follow up to Carol, it’s an undeniable disappointment.
CAST: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
WRITER: Brian Selznick (based on his own novel)
SYNOPSIS: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from 50 years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.