Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Amy Hargreaves, Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds
Runtime: 1 hr 56 mins
Released By: Shaw
Official Website: http://www.wonderstruckmovie.com
Opening Day: 8 February 2018
Synopsis: In 1927, a young girl runs away from home in New Jersey and makes her way to Manhattan, hoping to find someone who was an important part of her past. Fifty years later, a deaf boy befallen by personal tragedy finds a clue about his family that leads him to run away from rural Minnesota to New York. As their adventures lead them to strange new places, where mysteries about themselves and the world seem to lurk around every corner, their stories of discovery reach across years of silence and regret, and find each other through a mesmerizing symmetry driven by wonder and hope.
“I need you to be patient with this story…” writes Julianne Moore’s mute grandmother to her curious twelve-year-old grandson Ben (Oakes Fegley), just before she explains to him who his father is – and to us, how his story is tied to that of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), whose quest to track down her mother (also played by Moore) half a century ago mirrors that of his own to discover the identity of his father.
‘Wonderstruck’, adapted by Brian Selznick from his own children’s novel, intercuts both their stories across two different time frames. Ben’s story is set in 1977 and begins after the death of his mother (Michelle Williams, in a moving flashback) in an auto accident. While grieving over her loss, Ben is equally distraught that she never told him about his father. The only clue he has is a tattered old bookmark bearing the address of a New York bookstore, hidden within a titular old book that describes the precursors to museums called ‘cabinets of wonder’. That same night he finds the bookmark, Ben is struck by lightning in a freak accident which causes him to permanently lose his hearing. Undaunted, Ben hops on a bus to New York in search of the bookstore that he hopes will lead him to his father.
On the other hand, Rose’s story is set in 1927, and begins with her frustration at the strict authority of her businessman father. Hearing impaired since birth, Rose spends her days cooped up in a huge mansion, and on the occasions she manages to sneak out, finds her way to the local movie theatre to watch her mother on the big screen. Like Ben, Rose decides one day to go to New York City to track down her favourite actress, thus beginning a parallel adventure that will converge at some point and for some considerable time in the Museum of Natural History. That location isn’t some coincidence; indeed, as you can probably guess, both Ben and Rose are somehow connected through time by this extensive yet intricate repository of life itself.
At least for the first hour, it does appear as if their journeys seem to be leading up to something transcendent and illuminating; yet it never ever comes to that. Ben’s time at the Museum turns out to be a red herring, mostly spent with a lonely kid (Jaden Michael) whose father works at the Museum but who has no other connection with the central narrative. Rose’s presence is more purposeful, but even so, her story is a lot more straightforward and therefore a lot less intriguing. By the time Moore shows up in Ben’s story in order to complete the puzzle, you’d probably already guessed just how Ben and Rose are related to each other, so much so that the supposed climactic reveal ends up being an anti-climax.
That it turns out this underwhelming is due to director Todd Haynes, who engineers the big-reveal ending to be worth the one-half hours that precedes it. As a result, aside from illustrating the similarities between the two tracks of action, there is hardly any momentum to the storytelling, or for that matter any form of character development that shows Ben and Rose’s coming-of-age through their respective journeys. What pleasures the movie offers are fleeting and intermittent – such as Haynes’s use of cardboard cut-outs within the impressive Panorama of the City of New York exhibit at the 1964 World Fair to convey the history between Ben and Rose, or how Rose’s adventure unfolds like a black-and-white silent movie told with several intertitles and a soundtrack without dialogue. Still, these are barely enough to sustain one’s interest in the dramatically inert plotting, which leaves one far from wonderstruck.
Among Haynes’s oeuvre, this gentle fable is one of his weakest. There are some visually imaginative delights no doubt, and those who feel passionately about the preservation of the natural environment will surely be thrilled by how that has been woven into the story, but otherwise what should have been an intriguing exploration of two voyages that transcend time and space eventually becomes a meandering slog across two different points in time. Oh yes, by the time Moore’s character implores for Ben’s patience, you’ve very likely already lost yours.
(There is little wonder in this dramatically inert story of two intercutting coming-of-age journeys across different time frames, and not even Todd Haynes's visual artistry saves his movie from its sheer tedium)
Review by Gabriel Chong