- Product Rating -

Wonderstruck

| November 10, 2017

The onset of winter months may not faze me generally speaking, but with its sudden appearance this year just weeks after it was an unseasonal 90 degrees, I wanted something at least a little warm. With the first snowfall of the season today and a 15-degree wind chill upon waking up, a movie of any kind was inviting, especially one with the type of content present in Wonderstruck. It’s not the warmth of hellfire that I usually gravitate towards, but with the indifference of mine juxtaposed with the drama evident in the lives of those onscreen, I was led to wonder if maybe the warmth of awards season period dramas are in fact as cold as the snow outside of the theater. With Wonderstruck, the audience is asked to bleed sympathy for characters whose circumstances are inherently dramatic yet bare from a human standpoint. As the film continued to unevenly trek along with its two protagonists, I began to realize that yes, the issue is with Wonderstruck, not with me.

With a split structure, the film weaves together two stories, one in 1927 and the other in 1977. In the black-and-white-presented former, a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life) runs away from her father’s home in Hoboken in order to track down her mother Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), an actor unashamedly similar to Lillian Gish. In the latter, recently orphaned and hearing-impaired Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) runs away from his home in Minnesota in an attempt to find his father. If it sounds saccharin, that’s because it is, its material somewhat comparable to 2007’s wonderfully cringeworthy dumpster fire August Rush, albeit handled with more tact and less manipulation thanks to Todd Haynes’s (Carol) direction. Nevertheless, Wonderstruck generally lacks the emotional nuance or technical beauty one would hope for, save for some fittingly soft and warm cinematography.

The script, written by Brian Selznick and adapted from his 2011 novel of the same name, is generally consistent in its treatment of its characters. It also does a nice job approaching the material tonally, holding a sense of mysticism to compliment the worldview and naïveté of its child characters. The balance between plots and characters, though, is less deft, with those in the periphery coming off as somewhat inconsequential. This proves to be especially problematic with the depiction of Moore’s character given her being the object of one protagonist’s external journey. She comes across more as an archetypal vessel for emotional growth as opposed to a fleshed out and realistic person, which seems to clash with the intended weight of the plot and the depth that it seems to be aiming for. Like in Suburbicon, Moore tries her best to create the illusion of depth in her role, but even her talents can’t redeem Wonderstruck of its underdevelopment.

What proves to be the most surprising aspect of the film, though, is Haynes’s direction; it doesn’t seem to entirely fit with this material. Like his previous work, this project demonstrates a deep fascination with these characters, which is an intent that the script shares but cannot pull off. Selznick also wrote the story on which Hugo was based, and the comparisons are plentiful. However, Hugo, despite its flaws, was grounded and centered while Wonderstruck is flighty and flippant.

The score from Carter Burwell is oddly overbearing from time to time as if every spare instrument was used just for the hell of it, and the pacing that Haynes brings to the table isn’t as consistent as one may wish. The intentions here are both understandable: the score includes stingers to replicate the scorings of the silent films of which Wonderstruck pays homage; and the shifts between plots are to create obvious parallels between them. But when said stingers are used inconsistently, the music switches between diegetic and non-diegetic seemingly at a whim, and the plots are unrelated save for a contrived link between the two that has to exist because both plots are in the same movie, the movie falters. Both plots are dependent on the similarities of the other to hold weight, but neither are good enough in their own rights and the movie drags notably in its second half as a result.

Despite this, Wonderstruck has its moments, mostly by way of the fairy tale atmosphere that Haynes threads into each scene. As mentioned earlier, the cinematography from Edward Lachman (Carol, Wiener-Dog) alternates between stern and monochromatic and warm with a green tint to it that could come off as either naturalistic or sickly. When Burwell’s score works well, it truly does accomplish that it sets out to do—it’s just that it plays its hand too overtly multiple times, usually at least once per scene. Simmonds is a great little gem, her work supplying a majority of the film’s nuance when it’s actually present and when she is indeed given stuff to do.

Alas, Wonderstruck is a sentimental slog, a movie with a sense of style but not much to say or show. Its use of music, sound, and structure proves to be conflicting and at times outwardly cacophonous, as if multiple creative voices were battling with each other. One would think that a movie about deaf children would fully embrace filmmaking as a visual medium, yet this one doesn’t seem to know what to show, instead settling on telling as it knits its threads together over a warm fire until the story becomes a ball of wet spaghetti. Despite Simmonds’s performance and portions of the film benefitting from Haynes’s attention to detail, the script and editing make for an odyssey that isn’t worth taking.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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