Wonderstruck comes from a great and interesting place. The film presents a complicated story, talented young actors and riveting locations in the hands of a brilliant director. However, when all is said and done, nothing with the film quite seems to gel. Wonderstruck is an interesting and ambitious project, but it seems overwhelmed by its lofty expectations.
Wonderstruck tells parallel stories following a deaf young boy from the Midwest (Oakes Fegley) who travels to Manhattan during the 1970s in hopes of locating his long-lost father. At the same time, the film explores the adventures of a deaf young girl (Millicent Simmons) in the 1920s who travels into Manhattan to find her mother. Julianne Moore co-stars in dual roles. The film comes from legendary, period-piece auteur Todd Haynes, and comes from a script by author Brian Selznick.
The film features a stellar performance by the young Millicent Simmons as Rose. The young actress stands out as a definite strength of the film, selling her performance through not only the black and white cinematography, but also the silent film style. Simmons demonstrates an impeccable ability to emote, and delivers a beautiful performance without the use of sound. Her beautiful and heartfelt portrayal is definitely a strength of this film. Here’s to seeing more from this talented performer.
In its lack of dialogue, the film feels like an interesting cinematic experiment. It is clear that Wonderstruck is asking some interesting questions, and trying to make a point about language and communication. The main characters are deaf, as a result, we’re assuming their point-of-view by not hearing the action around us. However, the film ultimately fails to conjure the sense of wonder it hopes to accomplish.
Wonderstruck struggles most with its pacing and tone over its two hour runtime. The film meanders tediously, especially throughout the second act. The action is slow, and ultimately the visuals are not stunning enough to carry audiences through the slow pacing in the largely silent film. Minds definitely start wandering about midway through.
Visually, the film feels like a definite letdown. Director Todd Haynes is known for his rich and vibrant films. His visuals are almost luscious at times with an artistic use of color. This film brings a definitely chance to impress, especially with the 1920s portion. However, it pales in comparison to something like The Artist, which did a silent film better. While the costumes and setting feel beautifully rendered, the cinematography is lackluster. At time, the picture feels grainy, resembling a video filter rather than a 1920s silent film. Coming from a prolific filmmaker like Haynes, this should have looked better.
A big part of the visual aesthetic is missed in the treatment of the film’s respective environments. The New York landscape in both these periods should conjure wonder. These children travel into Manhattan on their own. The city is big, bustling and almost overpowering. This is the perfect opportunity to use the setting to help establish the wide-eyed power of the moment. However, Wonderstruck misses this opportunity. Most of the film is shot fairly close, never quite giving a true feel to the city around our characters.
However, a shining moment of interesting filmmaking comes deep in the third act. As the movie builds to its climax, Ben finally learns the secrets he’s been searching for about the father he never knew. As he hears the story of his parents meeting, the style of the film shifts. To tell the very interesting tale, Haynes projects an artistic, almost animated aesthetic. The moment is a beautiful one and the story is fascinating to hear. As the action plays out on screen, it seems this would have been the story to spend the film telling, not the hour and forty five minutes we’ve just sat through.
Finally, there is so much potential in the Brian Selznick script. The talented author (best known for his work on Hugo), is known for bringing a very specific voice to his writing. Hugo captures a very bright, wide-eyed sense of wonder. He brings an easy, fantastical element to his work that is likable and accessible to a wide range of readers. However, in translation, Wonderstruck doesn’t bring this home.
It seems like a loaded compliment, but Wonderstruck feels like a stellar student film. The movie brings an interesting idea, a fascinating cinematic experiment, and some beautiful sequences. However, it doesn’t look or feel polished. Coming from a filmmaker capable of wowing with his visual flair, Wonderstruck fails to illicit much wonder. Rather, the film feels rough and rushed. This one could have been a heck of a lot better.
Wonderstruck is in theaters around the country now.