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Review: Wonderstruck

October 27, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Based on the book of the same name by Brian Selznick, the same author who provided the novel behind Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Wonderstruck is an example of film that is decent enough, but also doesn’t entirely live up to its source material or potential.

The film tells two stories.  The first one involves Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl in 1927, who travels on her own to New York City so she can meet her idol, a silent film star by the name of Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  Because Rose is deaf, she loves watching silent movies, and is feeling left out by the advent of the talkies.

The second story follows Ben (Oakes Fegley), a preteen boy in the Midwest in 1973, who lost his mother (Michelle Williams) in a car accident, and wants to find out more about the father he never met.  When lightning strikes his house while he is on the phone, he is left pretty much entirely deaf, and runs away to New York to try and find his father.  Ben ends up at the Natural History Museum, a place that holds mysterious connections to the past, and finds a friend in the gregarious kid Jamie (Jaden Michael), the son of a museum security guard who acts as his guide.

This is one of those times where the experience of reading the book, which was a several hundred page volume made up of a pretty much equal amount of text and gorgeous black and white illustrations that helped tell the story, is much more immersive than the film.  With its visual approach to storytelling, the book should have provided the perfect blue print for an enchanting film, like what happened with the wondrous Hugo several years ago.  But the story of Wonderstruck has been rendered onscreen in a way that lacks inherent suspense, and elements of it feel entirely underdeveloped.

Directed by Todd Haynes, working in a very different realm than his previous adult dramas like the 2015 lesbian love story Carol, Wonderstruck is as well made and often beautifully shot as we have come to expect from the filmmaker.  But it also left me a little cold, despite some solid elements.  For example, the young star Oakes Fegley, who made his debut in last year’s superior family adventure Pete’s Dragon, does do good work here, and Jaden Michael is a bright spot of the supporting cast.

But the 1973 storyline is told in a way that feels somewhat rambling, even though I did find it the more entertaining half of the film, and many of the side characters seem like they could have used one or two more scenes to really flesh them out.  This is especially true of Michelle Williams, who is criminally underused as the boy’s mother, leaving her mark on the film, but only given a scant couple of scenes.  A performer of her calibre deserves more than to be relegated to a few flashbacks, and I kept wanting to see more of her character in the film.

I don’t know if it has to do with the lighting or what, but there is also something about the look of the black and white sequences that felt a little bit off to me.  They end up looking more like they were shot through a black and white Instagram filter than like an actual old movie, which is strange considering that they were shot on film.  Aside from Millicent Simmonds, who does a decent job, the supporting performances in these sequences are also greatly exaggerated, with the actors relying on over the top movements to try and silently convey emotion.  I gather this is a purposeful choice, meant to mimic an older acting style, but it feels forced and actually took me out of the movie.

The film does reach an emotional payoff when the two stories finally converge in the last act, which culminates in a touching and nicely done sequence involving stop motion models.  It’s worth the wait, but I found my attention wavering somewhat in the lead up to it.  Although there was potential here for something truly special, and there are a few moments when Wonderstruck does come alive, the film as a whole just doesn’t quite work as well as it should.  It’s still mildly worth seeing, but read the book as well.

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