Wonderstruck is a beautifully made and captivating film whose good qualities, and there are many, do not quite add up to a movie as good as the sum of its parts.
The film goes back and forth between two stories set fifty years apart. The first story takes place in 1977 and is about Ben (Oakes Fegley, the human star of 2016’s Pete’s Dragon remake), an eleven year-old boy living with his aunt in Minnesota after the recent death of his mother (four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams). He has always been curious about his father, whom he has never met. Ben finds a possible clue to his father’s identity in one of his mother’s old books. After he is hurt in a lightning storm, Ben runs off to New York City in the hopes of uncovering the truth about his family.
The other story is set in 1927 and follows deaf eleven year-old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) as she abandons her New Jersey home and runs away to New York City to find her estranged mother, a famous actress (Julianne Moore in her third, and best, film of 2017).
The way director Todd Haynes distinguishes between his two stories is brilliant and never really felt like a gimmick. The 1927 story is silent (with no intertitles) and in black and white. Not only does this decision allow viewers to experience life something like Rose does, it also provides an effective counterpoint to the New York City that Ben experiences in 1977. They visit some of the same places and the switch from black and white to color allows the changes in the city, both its landmarks and its people, to really standout. Even the performances are broader in the silent sequence (as they would have been in the silent films of the time).
The production design, by Mark Friedberg, is also great at showing the differences and similarities in Ben and Rose’s worlds. Instead of going for anything approaching realism, Haynes, his cinematographer, Edward Lachman (who has been nominated for two Best Cinematography Oscars for his work with Haynes) and Friedberg have created two versions of New York City that impressively replicate how the city was portrayed on film in 1927 and 1977. This brings a magical quality to Wonderstruck.
The individual stories are both pretty good. Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, really carries her section of the film. She is charming and easily likeable. Fegley is also very good in his segment. He supplies most of the film’s emotion and does so convincingly.
The ending was also extremely effective as Haynes and first-time screenwriter Brian Selznick (who adapted his own novel) reveal the connection between the two stories. They do not lay things on too thick and the emotion is well earned. It is a little predictable but, as I was watching the film, it was the ending I wanted. Predictable is okay when it is satisfying.
In fact, I liked so much about Wonderstruck (111 minutes without the end credits) that I am disappointed to say that it was merely very good, instead of great. Part of the problem was, though I enjoyed the 1927 segment, its narrative never felt essential to the film. It is a beginning and middle with an ending supplied by the other story. I really wish Selznick and Haynes had found a way to make that section more indispensable to the overall film. There is little information in the 1927 story that could not have been easily conveyed in a different way. That is a shame because, on its own, it is a good piece of filmmaking.
The film also has some pacing issues. The relationship between Ben and Jamie (Jaden Michael), a boy who assists him in New York, is sweet, but sidetracks from the main story. I liked their scenes together, however, they went on for too long and did not move Ben’s quest forward or get paid off in a way that felt necessary.
In the end, I guess my issues with Wonderstruck amount to too much of a good thing. The performances are good, the writing is good and the direction is very good. But a lot of it feels so stretched out that it hurts the story’s impact. There is a great film lurking inside Wonderstruck, but too often it is hidden inside a story that does not always successfully pull the magical out of the ordinary.
3¾ out of 5
Oakes Fegley as Ben
Millicent Simmonds as Rose
Julianne Moore as Lillian Mayhew
Michelle Williams as Elaine
Jaden Michael as Jamie
Tom Noonan as Walter
Directed by Todd Haynes
Screenplay by Brian Selznick