In 1927, 12-year-old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her loveless home in Hoboken to the bright lights of New York City, where she hopes to find her mother, silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Her actions are echoed fifty years later by 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley), who takes a bus from Michigan to New York City hoping to find the father he has never met. Besides being the same age, both children are hearing impaired—Rose apparently from birth, Ben only recently, due to a freak accident involving lightning—and both carry artifacts to guide them on their journeys. For Rose, it’s press clippings about her mother; for Ben, it’s a note tucked into a book he finds among his mother’s possessions.
Wonderstruck is adapted from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel of the same name, which is more formally adventurous than the term “graphic novel” might imply—it doesn’t just tell its story by combining pictures and words, but is made up of sections which use only pictures and others which use only words. Director Todd Haynes somewhat echoes that distinction in the film version of Wonderstruck, shooting Rose’s story in black and white and in a style reminiscent of silent movies, while Ben’s story is told through a modern color film.
Haynes’ choice to emphasize the parallels between Ben and Rose’s stories results in a lot of cross-cutting, sometimes with overly clever matches, and the incessant hopping between the two stories makes it difficult to become too attached to either. Due to chronology, Ben’s story becomes primary, which is a shame because Rose’s story is actually the more interesting of the two. Ben is also much less attractive as a character—he’s a pint-sized user who thinks only of himself and dumps on other people, including a good-hearted Hispanic boy who shows him nothing but kindness.
There are many good points about Wonderstruck, even if the film as a whole is disappointing. First among them is the acting of Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actor from Utah appearing in her first major film role. Another is the cinematography and production design, particularly the recreations of 1970s New York City (when Port Authority was a truly scary place, and 42nd Street was populated not with tourists heading to Disney productions but with prostitutes and drug dealers). Julianne Moore is also excellent in a dual role, and any film that draws attention to the Panorama of New York City (now in the Queens Museum) deserves a shout-out for that reason alone.
I enjoyed Wonderstruck as a graphic novel, but the magic that was there on the printed page hasn’t made it to the screen. I suspect the problem lies in the naturalistic style Haynes chose for Ben’s story, which makes the viewer less inclined to accept the string of coincidences that fuel the story’s conclusion. What was magic on the page comes off as overly opportunistic on the screen, the sort of wish fulfillment that works in a fairy tale but seems silly in a story set in a recognizable real world. There’s also a lot of handwaving about the reality of deafness: when the story requires it, Ben appears to be able to lip read, for instance, something he has never studied. My greatest disappointment in Wonderstruck, however, is that while it begins with an unconventional approach that echoes its source material, it concludes in the most conventional and melodramatic way possible.
The title, Wonderstruck, is also the title of the book in which Ben finds the clue that leads him. to New York. The book in question is a history of museums, and the title plays on the notion of the “Wunderkammer” or “Cabinet of Wonders” that were the forerunners of modern museums. Ben and Rose are also wonderstruck by the marvels of New York City, something that is communicated much more effectively in the book than in this film. In the end, Wonderstruck is an interesting failure that doesn’t do justice to its source material, but still has much to recommend it. | Sarah Boslaugh