'Wonderstruck' Review: Todd Haynes' Latest Is One Half Of A Great Movie [New York Film Festival]

Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck is like a meal where the servings are just a little too small. There's not enough food to properly chew on, or at least not enough to warrant the size or splendor of the plate on which it's being served.

The film is adapted from Brian Selznick's novel by the same name, and is relatively dense in a way that makes its literary origin obvious. There are two stories, set fifty years apart. In 1927, a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is notably also deaf) runs away from home in pursuit of actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from home in the wake of his mother's death, in a bid to find the father he never knew.

The stories possess some clear narrative parallels, especially after Ben is rendered deaf in an accident involving a phone and a lightning storm. The reason why they're being presented together is one of the central mysteries of the film, along with figuring out what happened to Ben's father. Unfortunately, the more light is shed on both questions, the more it becomes evident that the answers aren't particularly interesting. The grand mystery is mundane at best, and while there's arguably some appeal in that — the magic of Wonderstruck is embedded in love and family rather than any conspiracy — but it's not enough to sustain an entire movie. (It's not dissimilar, in that sense, to the entire Harry Osborn storyline in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies; this could all have been resolved with a single conversation.)

As such, the primary charm of Wonderstruck is in the filmmaking. Haynes is one of our best working directors, and his touch is what makes the film worth watching. The entirety of the 1927 storyline is shot as a black and white silent film, and the performances, music, and sound design are altered to reflect that. The music, by Carter Burwell, does some of the heavy lifting as, in the absence of any dialogue or diegetic sound, it falls to the score to effectively "narrate" what's going on. Jarring cues punctuate moments of emotional distress, and sweeping strings convey more maudlin sentiments. As for the actors, Simmonds in particular is terrific, and distinguishes herself in a year full of great young performances with the way she's immediately able to telegraph her emotions without falling prey to melodramatics. She's also bolstered by great work from James Urbaniak as her father and Cory Michael Smith as her older brother. Their performances are exaggerated by nature given the altered medium they're working in, but they don't feel any less real.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the 1977 storyline. Things change a little when the film jumps forward in time, as the use of sound is used solely to emphasize Ben's deafness instead of being pervasive in the way it is for Rose. (As Ben is originally fully capable of hearing, dialogue is fairly prominent in his segments.) Luckily, the 1977 thread has an advantage in actor Jaden Michael as Jamie. Ben comes across Jamie after reaching New York, and becomes fast friends with him as the two boys explore the American Museum of Natural History. While Jamie's motivations prove to be uninteresting in light of how much the film builds up to a reveal, his performance is bright enough to be unhampered by that limitation.

Again, it's a symptom of the inherent weakness of the story that the supporting performances are, across the board, so much better than the leads (with the exception of Simmonds). Julianne Moore, who appears in both timelines, comes close to transcending the rule as her performance is entirely without dialogue, but her characters are so closely tied to the flat story that it fades a little in that light.

Though the storylines ultimately do connect, the side-by-side presentation suffers in that one is more compelling (again, by merit of presentation rather than necessarily content) than the other. The touches of magic that suffuse both storylines early on — Ben's nightmares, the brief glimpse he has of his mother when one of his cousins wears her clothes — dissipate as Haynes attempts to keep the film grounded in realism. By the time they return as the story's mysteries resolve, it's too late to buoy the film back up. The film builds and builds with clues littered everywhere that hint at oncoming waterworks, but the fuse, instead of lighting up, simply fizzles out in what can only be described as a sort of cinematic blueballing. The storytelling conceit is more interesting that the story itself.

All that said, I'd happily watch a cut of Wonderstruck that was solely the black-and-white portion of the film. Simmonds is truly so remarkable — a movie star in the classic sense, in how much she can do with just an expression — that even the most mundane details seem compelling in her hands. As her brother, Cory Michael Smith (now seemingly a Haynes repertory player) is also incredible, his performance reminiscent of the best of Harold Lloyd. The rapport between them is also one of the best parts of the movie, which makes it all the more a pity when they're effectively left behind in order to keep following Ben through a journey that doesn't quite merit the effort it's taking. They're the magic in a film that doesn't quite manage to manufacture it, despite how lovely it otherwise is.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10