I wanted to love this movie and had every reason to think I would. Wonderstruck wowed many critics on the festival circuit, but somehow it never drew me in. Much as I wanted to be engaged, I remained aloof from the story and characters. It’s not for lack of effort on the part of director Todd Haynes or screenwriter Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), who adapted his own novel. They have created two worlds fifty years apart and provided clues to the connection between them. We are challenged to put the pieces together as the parallel stories develop.
Oakes Fegley, who was so good in Pete’s Dragon, plays a boy who desperately misses his mother (Michelle Williams), who has died in an auto accident. She frustrated him by never revealing anything about his father…so he runs away from home in Minnesota and takes a bus to New York City, with a bookmark from a used bookstore his only clue. The year is 1977 and the city is a funky, filthy landscape. To add to his problems, a recent incident has rendered him deaf.
Newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf, makes the same journey a half-century earlier, in 1927. She has only to cross the Hudson River from New Jersey but she, too, seeks answers in the big city. All we know about the isolated girl is that she is devoted to a silent-movie actress (Julianne Moore) and determined to track her down.
Wonderstruck teases us with tantalizing ingredients: a “book of wonders,” an elaborate diorama of New York City filled with little moving parts, a secret room in the Museum of Natural History, a silent movie released in 1927 when talkies were about to burst on the scene. Yet the potential of these components is never fully realized, so they remain little more than footnotes to the story.
I should have felt a connection to these youngsters and their search, but I didn’t. If anything, I grew impatient to see how the stories would resolve. Along the way, there is much to admire in Mark Friedberg’s production design and Ed Lachman’s cinematography, which turn 1927 Manhattan into a black & white dreamscape. Since so much of the film is without dialogue it becomes a virtual silent picture, dependent on the expressive faces of its actors and Carter Burwell’s music. (The soundtrack also makes great use of a track I haven’t heard in ages, Deodato’s disco version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” to evoke the 1970s.)
It’s always discouraging when I don’t care for a film that was clearly a labor of love for the talented people involved. I’m sure other people will respond differently to Wonderstruck, but I was anticipating an emotional and immersive experience and didn’t get it.