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Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck is the latest film from Todd Haynes, a respected arthouse director most recently responsible for the Oscar-nominated Carol. The script was written by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the book that served as the basis for Hugo. The cast features such a wide array of proven talents as Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan. Even the young Oakes Fegley has proven himself as a capable talent, with the surprisingly good Pete’s Dragon (2016) under his belt.

All the pieces were there, but it still doesn’t work.

This story follows two separate storylines playing out in sync in two different time periods. In 1977, we follow Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy whose mother (Michelle Williams) was recently killed in a car accident. And then, in a laughably contrived sequence of events, Ben gets hit by lightning and loses his hearing. For whatever reason, Ben sees this as a perfect opportunity to run away to New York City in search of an absentee father he knows nothing about.

Flash back to 1927. Here we meet Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl born to a famous actress (Julianne Moore) and a generic asshole (James Urbaniak). Alas, her parents divorced some time ago and Rose only ever sees her mother in the movies. So when news comes in that Rose’s mom is starring in some huge Broadway production, Rose runs away to NYC in search of her.

To start with the positive aspects, I very much liked all the ways that this movie accommodates our deaf protagonists. Even if the movie grinds to a dead halt while the characters scrawl out and read written messages, the score is marvelous and the sound design is inspired. Moreover, it does so much to make our runaway grade-school protagonists even more vulnerable. And when they find someone who’s willing and able to communicate with them, it makes that interpersonal connection so much deeper. And of course, kudos are due to all of the actors who do so much to tell the story without the use of dialogue.

Additionally, there are a lot of visual flourishes throughout that I really liked. The film was clearly going for a “modern fairy tale” vibe (very much like Hugo, suitably enough), and I love that. Alas, this is an idea that worked far better in theory than in execution.

Right from the outset, the interplay between timelines is screwy beyond all hope of repair. It certainly doesn’t help that the first act has flashbacks to Ben’s mother on top of the flashbacks to Rose’s timeline, which means way too much for us to keep track of. We also flash back to the deaf girl long before Ben has lost his hearing, so it takes that much longer to find any kind of connection between the two. All throughout the movie, there’s virtually no kind of pattern or logic to how or when we go from one timeline to another.

And when the two timelines finally do connect, the movie does the absolute last thing it ever should have done: Take the laziest and most predictable route that opens up a huge number of plot holes. Hell, they practically telegraph the big reveal at least half an hour in advance!

Even on their own merit, the storylines are pitifully weak. I’ll grant that overly simplistic stories are easier to convey without the use of dialogue, and each storyline only had half the movie to work with. Then again, if the two stories were intercut in a halfway-competent manner, they might have served to comment on each other and enhance each other without the constant need for stupid choices, contrivances, and coincidences to move the plot forward.

It’s really quite sad how the movie thinks that it’s deep — and certainly could have been deep — but truly isn’t. All throughout the film, we see such recurring motifs as museums, models, shooting stars, wolves… any or all of these could have been used to make some wonderful artistic point. Alas, the movie slams together so many motifs in such a slapdash manner that they all come off as terribly underdeveloped. The filmmakers tried to compensate by treating these symbols with a deep reverence, but it’s ultimately a superficial treatment that comes off as pretentious and trite more than anything else.

The individual pieces of Wonderstruck are all interesting enough, but they never fit together into a single cohesive whole. The filmmakers flirt with potentially compelling themes, but never develop them into anything more than pretty recurring motifs. The actors all turn in beautiful work, but the characters are all too thin. I can respect the movie’s aspirations of working as a modern fairy tale, and I appreciate the use of such novelties as deaf protagonists and parallel timelines. Unfortunately, these gimmicks are all mishandled in such a way that they can’t elevate this undercooked and implausible plot.

It’s a harmless little trifle, but there’s nothing here worth going out of your way for and nothing you’re likely to regret missing. Not recommended.

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