Wonderstruck has all the trappings of a sweet and whimsical work of wonder. Based on the novel by Brian Selznick, from a screenplay written by the author himself, Todd Haynes’s film tells the story of two children from two different time periods, finding companionship and freedom in the environs of the Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1927, there is Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who runs away from her New Jersey home to find silent screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, there’s Ben (Oakes Fegley), who runs away from his home in Michigan following his mother’s death. The two stories are told in parallel, drawing comparisons to the situations of the two children, and especially highlighting their shared deafness. Rose was born deaf and her story is presented in black and white, as a sort of homage to silent film (but without any intertitles). Ben is struck deaf not long after his mother’s death, though he seems to be able to sometimes hear himself, though not others? The pair are also connected to a book called Wonderstruck, a discussion of collecting and the building of museum collections that informs their journeys.
Wonderstruck has so much going for it. There are many excellent concepts: the idea of telling a deaf girl’s story as a silent film, the homage to collecting and museum culture, the connection between people across an expanse of fifty years. So it’s a shame that the film is such a spectacular mess. Wonderstruck manages to squander every single one of its concepts, visual, thematic, and aural, in the service of an ultimately superficial story that fails to hit any of the emotional markers it sets for itself. Ridden with clichés and overly predictable plot turns, it seems to believe that whimsy can replace emotion and that style can paper over a paucity of script that has all the sentimental honesty of a Hallmark card.
The messiness of the film seems to stem from a total lack of regard for basic things like plot structure and character development. There are moments of magical realism – like Ben’s sudden deafness following his discovery of the book – that simply don’t land, because the rest of the film does nothing to reinforce them. Ben’s journey to find his father in 1970s NYC is not only ill-advised, it’s insanely dangerous, and yet the boy seems to have no fear, not even the slightest bit of nervousness of uprooting himself and fleeing to a big city where he spends the first night sleeping in a bus terminal (despite being unable to hear or to understand sign language). Rose’s story fares a bit better, but Haynes’s insistence on filming in 35-negative anamorphic rather than attempting to approximate silent film aspect ratio and style makes the occasional use of silent film techniques incongruous. It’s as though Haynes only wanted to go partway with an interesting concept, and relied on the audience’s good faith without earning it.
In fact, the entirety of Wonderstruck is half-baked. There is not a concept followed through on, not a plot thread that isn’t left hanging, or resolved without fraying other threads beyond repair. The cast is strong, and apparently game, but they’re given little to work with, trying to mine a script for emotion that simply isn’t there. The conclusion – which is telegraphed early and often – is endless exposition meant to be moving. Visually, the film is all over the place, and completely anachronistic to its various time periods. Scenes go on for far too long – no, I do not see a deep emotional impact in watching a little boy walk around NYC in 1977 – and elements are introduced and then discarded with little regard for character or arc. Finally,Wonderstruck is so aggressively twee that it seems willing to beat itself to death with its own mediocre sentimentality.
I’m not quite sure what happened with Wonderstruck. I suspect that allowing Selznick to write the script based on his own book was a major miscalculation, for perhaps he had no ability to cut or streamline his own work. But Haynes is better than this. He’s perfectly capable of constructing a film with aesthetic and thematic depth without sacrificing either. How this particular film fails so abysmally is beyond me – and I’ve been trying to figure it out for some time.