When twelve-year-old Ben's (Fegley, Pete's Dragon) dope-smoking mother (Williams) dies he is forced to live with his aunt and his cousins. Puzzled and frustrated that his mother never told him who his father was but, fuelled by a tentative clue, Ben runs away to 1977 New York in the hopes of tracking him down. Exactly fifty years earlier Rose (Simmonds) was in a similar situation. She knew her mother was silent film star Lilian Mayhew (Moore) and she too makes for New York to find her…
Based on the novel by Brian Selznick (who also writes the script) Wonderstruck is an odd movie for director Todd Haynes to make after the sumptuous Carol. It's a retreat to a more arthouse bent, and a retreat to a poorly structured and rather dull film. The dual narratives, the 1927 story shot like a silent film, do mirror each other thematically but the perpetual cutting away from one to the other has a tendency to stall momentum in both. Haynes was never a films of breathless film but the stop-start nature of Wonderstuck slows everything down to a crawl. The film lacks the snazzy and warm visuals of Carol too.
There are some rather clumsy tie-ins - Rose is hearing impaired, asking those around her to write down what they want to say, while Ben is hit by lightning and loses his hearing, and both end up at the Museum of Natural History – but Haynes struggles to connect the two in any meaningful way. Waiting for the emotional pay-off at the close will disappoint as Haynes, true to form, doesn’t opt for cozy. One is left thinking what the point of the endeavour was: a movie starring children that children won't want to watch (incidentally, the other adaptation of Selznick's work, Hugo, is not exactly popular with a young audience either).
Rose's story works best. There is some nice period detail (the tall New York buildings to a young child resemble and impenetrable maze) and Simmonds is wonderful in the role, asked to do all the heavy lifting with her eyes. Her 1977 counterpoint is dogged with uninspiring dialogue and his interactions with the boy he befriends in the museum fail to garner interest.