I love movies that deal with different time periods. Historical films are among my favorites to watch. When I first read the description of this film, two stories being told simultaneously in two different time periods, I found the idea intriguing and thoroughly compelling. While the story was vastly different from what I expected, Wonderstruck was beautiful and mysterious, layered with imagery and detail.
The film is based on a book of the same name, written in 2011 by author Brian Selznick, who adapted the novel into a screenplay. It tells two different stories set fifty years apart, each sharing the quest of a child. In 1927, we meet Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf young girl, running away from her father to find her idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Lillian turns out to be her mother but is unwilling to spend time with her daughter, leaving Rose few options. In 1977, we follow Ben (Oakes Fegley), orphaned by the loss of his mother, Elaine Wilson (Michelle Williams). Ben runs away from his Minnesota home to New York City to find his father. Both children build relationships along their journey, each story reflecting back to the other, as it builds to share the similarities between the pair.
The story delves into many elements. One of the concepts used is the absence of sound, bringing in music to build the story as well as silence, a homage to silent films in its style. Since both Rose and Ben are deaf in the story, the filmmakers must find ways to relay that experience in a variety of ways. There are times during the film where there is no dialogue, only visuals showing people talking. Communication is portrayed through notes, through sign, and through lip reading. Music helps guide the dialogue, giving clues to the viewer as to the actual words spoken. This builds the experience of being deaf, of living in a world of silence and how both children while differently abled are able to move through their worlds with competence.
Connection is another aspect to the film. Part of the mystery of the movie is how the two children are connected, why the relationships around them are important and how it all ultimately comes together in the end. Without giving away these answers, I found the film’s ability to jump back and forth between the two children, integral to helping develop these relationships. Both children travel to New York. Both children have parents who are absent in some way. Both children tread the same paths once in New York, as they each go to the Museum of Natural History and as the story touches on the wonders of the museum. Ultimately, it is these ties that bring the pair together, fifty years later, as an adult Rose meets Ben to give him the answers to his questions of his father.
Details are what drive this film. Both time periods are extraordinarily well crafted. In the twenties, New York is shown through the architecture of the city, men in suits, cars and trolleys. In the seventies, we see the grittiness of New York, bell-bottom jeans, diversity in the population and wild hair-do’s. Each layer of Ben’s story dovetails with Rose’s, as they journey toward their answers. There are images connecting each child layered into the story, such as stars, paper constructions, and animals, such as wolves. These details bring the story to life and build a rich depth.
Beyond the story, the acting is phenomenal. Each child actor does an incredible job with their roles. Oakes Fegley is sweet as Ben, his emotions clear and his struggle real. Millicent Simmonds is breathtaking as Rose. On a side note, the actress is deaf herself and this helps lend authenticity to her part. I find it one of the best choices on the part of the filmmakers. Millicent is charming, daring, and portrays her character perfectly. The adults around them add to the story but it is truly the children who make the story real and beautiful.
While all those parts help the film, there are aspects that hindered my enjoyment, beginning with the use of dialogue. While the lack of dialogue and the use of sound truly help build the experience of what it means to be deaf, if you don’t know sign or how to read lips, you may lose parts of the narrative. I don’t know either and had to rely on body language, musical cues, and the reading of notes shared between characters. While I was able to grasp much of the story, it made understanding parts of it difficult and slowed down the pace of the film.
Not only did the dialogue slow down the film, but even before that, there are scenes at the beginning of the movie, that are difficult to understand. I struggled even at the onset to realize that Ben’s mother had passed away. There are disjointed scenes and references that don’t make sense at the beginning of the story. I was so busy trying to understand what was going on that I didn’t engage fully until the middle of the film. Although those scenes and references eventually connect and build the relationships, you have to be patient to get to the pay off. It’s worth it, the story is poignant and lovely but it takes time to build to that point. While the book is for children, I also struggle to see how children will take to the film as with the vying viewpoints, they may be lost and not understand much of the movie until the middle of the story. While adults may be patient and enjoy the end results, I feel the movie will lose children long before that point.
If you like artistic stories, if you enjoy thoughtful, connected films, you may enjoy this movie. While slow to build, the details are incredible, the child actors are charismatic, and the connections in the story build to a poignant ending worth the wait. Older teens might find the relationships compelling and the friendships within the film are full of depth and beauty.
Rating: 3.5 story and pacing, 4 for actors and historical details.
Based on Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed novel, Ben and Rose are children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests to find what they are missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Michelle Williams, and introducing Millicent Simmonds
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Brian Selznick (based on his novel)