Wonderstruck has been on my radar for quite a while. I like the director Todd Haynes past work very much, especially Carol and Far From Heaven. His films have such a distinctive artistic look that the mere looking becomes almost as important as the story.
Wonderstruck is an unusual story. It’s based on Brian Selznick’s screen play from his own children’s book. The story jumps back and forth in time from 1927 to 1977. It takes a long time for the two parallel stories to intersect. We know fairly early on that it has something to do museum displays, with collecting. The clues leading the two parallel stories closer and closer together are fascinating and beautiful.
Wonderstruck features two children. In fact, children may find this film far more fascinating than adults do. Children may be more affected by the emotional payoff at the end than adults, as well.
Newcomer Millicent Simmonds – you see her in the black and white world of 1927 above – plays Rose. She’s a deaf child. Millicent Simmonds is really deaf, by the way. Rose goes to New York City on her own to find her mother, a famous actress played by Julianne Moore. Julianne Moore also plays the adult Rose at a much later point in her life.
Rose finds her mother in the theater, working. Mom’s none to happy to see her. Rose runs off and goes in search of her brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith) who works at the Museum of Natural History.
In 1977, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) pesters his mother (Michelle Williams) for information about his father, which she refuses to supply. When his mother is killed in a traffic accident, Ben finds a bookmark from a New York City bookshop with a message of love to his mother on the back. It is signed by Danny. He picks up the phone to dial the number on the bookmark, just as the telephone pole outside the house is struck by lightning. The electrical surge through the telephone wires leaves Ben deaf.
Ben takes off on his own for New York City in hopes Danny is his father. While searching for the bookstore, Ben meets a boy his age – Jamie (Jaden Michael). Jamie takes him to the museum where his father works. The intersections between Rose’s experiences in the museum and Ben’s experiences in the museum are fascinating and really well done. Jamie takes Ben to back rooms and shows him material hidden from the public.
It isn’t until Ben leaves the museum and goes looking for the bookstore again that we finally get the full implications of how these two story lines from 50 years apart are connected, although there are many clues along the way.
In the bookstore, Ben meets adult Rose and her brother Walter (now played by Tom Noonan). Rose asks Ben to come with her and they go to a museum in Queens with a panoramic model of the city that Rose made for the 1964 World’s Fair. It’s here that the final pieces of the puzzle come together.
I don’t think we as viewers are meant to get too analytical about the probability of two 12 years-olds with the street smarts to find their way to the big city all alone, nor are we meant to question the displays and dioramas that unite them. It’s more magical than realistic.
It’s slow and atmospheric in mood. Since both children are deaf, it often plays like a silent movie. Is it a mystery? Maybe. It takes patience to watch – it’s not an action flick.
It’s definitely about children in need of parents, whether those parents are alive and uncaring or completely missing. It’s about the tenuous tendrils of life that connect us, no matter how great the separation is between us.
While this will never be my favorite Todd Haynes film, I’m glad I watched it. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Video.