Film Review: Wonderstruck

Two deaf children, separated by half a century, go on concurrent quests to find their NYC parents in this whimsy-overloaded children’s fable.
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There’s plenty of overcooked wonder in Wonderstruck, but the only truly amazing thing about Carol director Todd Haynes’ children’s fable is its wholesale lack of authentic humanity. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own book, this stylistically florid and syrupy slog is awash in extravagant devices, the central one being that its story boasts two concurrent narratives, one taking place in 1927, the other set 50 years later in 1977. Both involve deaf pre-teen runaways searching for lost relatives in big, intimidating New York City, and eventually feature the “wonder cabinets” that were once displayed at the Museum of Natural History. Also factoring into the equation are dioramas and model metropolises and wolf-related nightmares (oh my!), scored to songs of its protagonists’ respective eras as well as Carter Burwell’s incessant-beyond-belief orchestral music. Oh, and did I mention that the 1927 sequences are shot by Haynes as a black-and-white silent film?

Wonderstruck’s cup of precious affectation runneth over from the get-go. In 1977, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) once more pesters his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) for information about his mysterious dad, which she refuses to provide because she’s a phony movie mom abetting a ludicrous plot device. Following that sequence (set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), as well as some bad dreams Ben experiences while sleeping in a bedroom that’s decorated with expertly manicured late-1970s memorabilia (“like a museum,” says Mom), Ben gets on the phone at just the moment that lightning strikes the house, and he’s rendered deaf. That makes him a kindred spirit to hearing-impaired Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a 1927 Hoboken girl who’s obsessed with silent-movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and who lives with a father (James Urbaniak) whose domineering nastiness is epitomized by his stern pencil-thin mustache.

Ben’s mom, it turns out, is dead (we’re only seeing her in flashback), and after he finds a bookmark with a clue about his father’s whereabouts, Ben sets off for Manhattan. That journey leads him to a decrepit bookstore, where he has a first run-in with a kid (Jaden Michael) whom he later befriends at the Museum of Natural History. Meanwhile, Rose also ventures to the Big Apple looking for Lillian, who’s actually her mom, thus cementing yet another of the parallels with which Wonderstruck is so smitten. This cavalcade of visual/narrative echoes seems designed to create a sense of marvelous awe—at the many cine-magical ways in which the past is tethered to the present—but the entire endeavor feels egregiously strained and artificial. By the time Haynes is introducing a second character played by Julianne Moore and having her recount an origin story that Haynes visualizes via animation, the film has long come to feel like an elaborate pop-up book—inventive on the surface, but constructed out of feeble, flimsy material.

The fact that, amidst so much cloying whimsy, Wonderstruck still manages to strike a moving climactic chord speaks volumes about Haynes’ way with actors (he elicits competent turns from all his leads), as well as his genuine, heartfelt belief in the movies’ power to help forge connections—between reality and fantasy, grief and elation, memory and experience. Unfortunately, however, any final poignancy is far too little, too late for a film that’s too taken with its own oh-so-imaginative flights of fancy.

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