Two stories between two children come at a crossroads with fifty years between them, in Todd Haynes newest visual delight ‘Wonderstruck’. In the film based on Brian Selznick’s critically-acclaimed novel of the same name, Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) are children from two different respective eras (Ben in 1977, Rose in 1927) who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress (Julianne Moore) 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 unfolds with mesmerizing symmetry in each of their adverse paths. ‘Wonderstruck’ is rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.
It seems that once every decade a director will come along who everyone is raving about for enticing commentary on insightful films, yet a same director who I myself feel like I’m missing something with when it comes to this word of mouth. Along comes Todd Haynes, the man who helmed 2015’s ‘Carol’, a film that I just found so-so, and now the man who brings us ‘Wonderstruck’. After hearing about the positivity surrounding this film, I was ready to give Haynes another chance, but now I feel like the train may have left the station on the relationship between me and this critically acclaimed director. Haynes isn’t terrible. Most notably, he knows how to visually excite a production, giving us such beautiful designs of versatility in film productions that establish a valuable presence behind the camera. It’s just that from a narrative perspective more of the same continues in ‘Wonderstruck’ that leaves a lot more to be desired in an entertaining and poignant sit. For a film so beautiful and rich in visual perspective, ‘Wonderstruck’ often shutters its audience from ever opening us up to a story and characters that we can get behind for the wonderment of it all.
This is a dual narrative that is set between two completely opposite eras being told simultaneously, and the decision to move in this direction is one that I feel proved fruitfully why angles like this are often unsuccessful in film as opposed to novels. Brian Selznick, the original author of the book, is the screenwriter here, but his inexperience in adapting is one that comes back to haunt this picture repeatedly throughout. For a majority of this movie, it serves as a silent film, paying homage to the age of picture shows whose only audible sounds were those of the musical score that it accompanied. The reason for such a decision is because both of our child characters are deaf, so the decision reflects that of their certain perspective that limits them aloud. Where this subdues is in the inconsistencies of experience within this film that takes us in and out of the head of our main protagonists. For some scenes, you hear things from their perspective; blurry and distant in what you can make out. Yet in other scenes we hear the characters around them talk with no problem. This is something that I feel strongly about with needing a dominant direction as to which way the film is taking us creatively, because it doesn’t feel like it can stay committed to any gimmick long enough to reap the benefits of such a decision. In addition to this, the overall progression of the film takes ages, feeding us a dose of painful pacing medication that left me slouching in my chair and checking my clock every twenty minutes. Much of this finished product demands another edit, even if it cuts the over-burdened runtime of two hours dramatically. Silent films are a tough enough sell to audiences today, but when you add on the difficulty of seasoning them with plodding movements, the film will feel like a chore instead of an imaginative immersion.
The transition sequences are so jagged and faulty that the film often feels like a forced surgical addition where we’re trying to tie two films together with one knot. For the first half of the movie, much of this can be attributed to the impatient juggling that Haynes divides the two worlds on, giving us a minimal offering of time to ever follow along. It feels like the film is trying to make both eras equal in time allowance and importance, but for my money the 20’s era with Rose definitely feels like the attention-grabber that can at least stay on track for its one intended direction to stay put. The counterbalance with Ben keeps throwing all of these unnecessary wrenches in getting us to the destination that frankly shouldn’t be this difficult. Between the both of them, this should roughly be a half hour of actual storytelling that is being stretched even further because of endless divides in transition that only ends when one of them is abruptly finished with still twenty five minutes left of the film. This movie tries so unbelievably hard in tying the two films together because of certain physcial properties involved in each scene, but it all has an air of self-importance to its material that gave off an extreme indulgence of pretentiousness that was cringe-worthy. It’s painful to think that transitional sequences can still be this painful in 2017, especially when Haynes sets a stage beautiful enough to wow us into the most majestic of cinematic experiences visually.
On that account, thankfully the film has enough style over its floundered substance to keep this thing from ever getting truly out of hand. The color of the 70’s scenes, as well as the colorless backdrops of the 20’s offers a helpful line in the sand to shape how these worlds are divided in tone and in lifestyles. Proving that this goes all the way to the end, the film surprised me with some third act storyboards involving clay animation in bodies and profile pictures in heads that offered my single favorite scene of the entire film. The mystical musical score of composer Carter Burwell also provides enough gusto with soft piano and tempered flute in the dividing atmospheres playing to the wide ranges of tone that each respective era provides. Because of all of these things, ‘Wonderstruck’ has the gusto in visual enhancements that give it a step above in artistic expression, leading to what could be a worthy Oscar nomination coming this March.
Now for the opinion that is sure to get my house egged; the acting is horrendous in this film. Mostly it is the child actors of Fegley and Simmonds whose silent acting feels so rehearsed that it constantly breaks the mold of investment in each scene. Simmonds at least carries her innocence throughout the likeability of her character, but both are terribly executed because their energy and approach to the characters felt so unconvincing. Julianne Moore is barely in the film, despite appearing so prominently in the film’s trailers that displayed her likeness. When she is in the movie, she is much-appreciated, but there’s not enough lasting power in her character throughout a movie that forgets about her for about forty minutes during the film. Michelle Williams is only in two scenes during the movie, but the way that this film tries to establish her as what has to be a 60 year old woman is almost insulting. Williams isn’t in makeup, nor is she made to look even slightly older than her much younger real life age. But that doesn’t stop the film from trying to piece her together into something she so clearly is not. For any moviegoer who can do basic math, you’ll realize how impossible this breach of casting truly is, and it finishes off an ensemble of cast that were very underwhelming despite their respectful names.
THE VERDICT – ‘Wonderstruck’ and Todd Haynes alike have a thirst for whimsical sentimentality, but the combination of the two’s finished effort gives this product an air of self-importance that has it staring, instead of shooting for the stars. The film lacks any real honest intuition to cater to its ambitious method of dual-storytelling, and unfortunately the damage of some terribly constructed transitional scenes leaves this feeling like two uninteresting stories fighting for one collective breath. There’s a lot of ‘wonder’ to the designs, but nothing about the screenplay ‘struck’ me the same.