Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking
Screenplay by Brian Selznick, based on the novel by Brian Selznick
Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Cory Michael Smith and more
Grade: Two and a half stars
Sometimes, the best things get lost in translation.
That has unfortunately proven to be the case with “Wonderstruck,” a perfectly pleasant movie that ended up oddly flattened in its journey from the Brian Selznick novel to the silver screen. Though Selznick himself wrote the screenplay, the movie loses a lot of the dramatic heft in one of its two major plotlines when it fails to bring us inside the head of one of the main characters. We’re left watching from the outside, which sadly proves to be far less interesting.
The movie starts out with Ben, a young boy in the 1970s who has just lost his mother and never knew anything about his father. He finds a clue to his father’s identity in one of his mother’s drawers, and sets out to find him after losing his hearing in one of the most improbable ways I’ve ever seen in a movie. This storyline alternates with the black-and-white story of Rose, a girl from the 1920s who runs away to New York to meet a famous actress. Since she’s deaf, all of her scenes are silent to reflect her perspective on the situation.
Surprisingly, it’s the silent scenes from the 1920s that prove to be the most effective. Rose, who is played by deaf Davis County resident Millicent Simmonds, has a natural vivaciousness and a wonderfully expressive face that always lets the audience know exactly what she’s thinking and feeling. The silence only increases the feeling that it’s from her perspective, and the surprises are both genuinely surprising and somehow make perfect sense given the larger story.
Ben’s story, however, feels too much like we’re watching it at a distance. Director Todd Haynes is best known for his lush period dramas, often full of repressed emotion, but that seems to be exactly the wrong approach to take when dealing with a story about childhood. We never get a real sense of what Ben is feeling, though Oakes Fegley does manage to communicate the character’s bursts of anger well, and as a result it’s hard to get invested in his journey.
The movie intercuts the stories more than the book does, which highlights the parallels between the two storylines more effectively but made me long for even more to tie them together. The 1920s storyline is most effective at keeping audience interest, though Ben’s storyline does have a few moments of magic that made me want to know what happened next.
The ending of the movie, which I cannot reveal here due to plot spoilers, does finally tie the storylines together. Unfortunately, the nature of that tie means that a huge chunk of story is crammed into an explanatory voiceover, a problem inherent in the original novel that ends up feeling disappointingly cheap onscreen. We’re denied a significant part of the story – you could argue that it’s the most significant – and it leaves the larger film feeling unfinished. There isn’t time for all of it, I know, but surely we could have been given more.
Julianne Moore’s relatively brief appearance is part of what made me want more. She brings a warm expressiveness to her character that suggests a life well-lived, and imbues the movie with a little more magic whenever she’s onscreen.
If only the whole movie had that same magic.