Whoever was in charge of marketing Wonderstruck did a bad job with it. They should have downplayed the involvement of biggest actors – Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams – and not even mentioned it was directed by Todd Haynes. You see, Haynes is responsible for art films like Carol and Far from Heaven, and while Wonderstruck has an arthouse sensibility, it is a film that has broad appeal. Adults and children will admire it equally. This film is indeed fun for the whole family, even if that phrase makes most folks involuntarily sneer. Here is an earnest, heartwarming drama that never condescends to its young, vulnerable heroes. It takes its time to get going, but the rewards are worth the wait.
Based on the book by Brian Selznick, the film jumps between two time periods. It is the 1920s, and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) misses her mother. She is deaf, and lives with her father (James Urbaniak) who treats her like a nuisance. She does not know sign language, and after her father has plans to unload her to an indifferent doctor, she decides to run away to New York City. Her mother (Moore) is an actor, and is doing a splashy comedy on Broadway.
The other set of scenes happen in Minnesota, in the 1970s. Ben (Oakes Fegley) misses his recently departed mother (Williams). As he rummages between her things, he finds a clue: a note that’s written on a bookmark from a used book store in New York City. He calls the number, and at that precise moment, a freak lightning accident causes him to go deaf. Angry and alone in the hospital, Ben manages to escape and takes the bus to – you guessed it – New York City.
The story of Wonderstruck is how Rose and Ben’s stories converge. Part of the thrill is the opening passages, where the connection between them seems tenuous. Haynes compounds that with the filmmaking itself: the sequences in the 1920s have no dialogue or title cards, and are shot in stark black and white. There is some dialogue in the 1970s sequences, but mostly we perceive things from Ben’s limited view. Two children wandering New York alone is nerve-wracking, and a canny way to drum up sympathy. Watching the film, I instinctively came to care about these two young people, and that they would find the answers they wanted. Both Fegley and Simmonds are natural actors, older than the kids in The Florida Project, and mostly they seems a touch too mature and angry for their age.
I don’t want to say more, honestly, since the charm of Wonderstruck is how its theme reveal themselves. It is a sentimental film, with an “everything is connected” idea that can normally only be found on Hallmark cards. But Haynes handles the story delicately, with characters who are warm and guarded. I did not expect a film made for children to be moving. I expected something cloying, with a couple of decent visuals, and that’s it. Sentiment is something that must be earned, and not doled out like the Lifetime Network wishes it could. Wonderstruck earns its sentiment, and has the mercy not to hit over the head with it.