Movie Review: Wonderstruck

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The movies of director Todd Haynes have always been decidedly grownup.

After all, kids were not part of the target audience for Carol, Far From Heaven, Safe, Poison, I’m Not There, or Velvet Goldmine.

His latest, however, Wonderstruck, although not a kidflick, doesn’t disenfranchise youngsters, is about a pair of kids, and is aimed at the family audience.

Scripted by Brian Selznick and based on his 2011 best-selling novel (he also wrote the book that inspired Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s excursion into the family audience), it tells two intertwined stories, each about a hearing-impaired tween.

We look in on twelve-year-old Rose, played by Millicent Simmonds, in Hoboken in 1927, at the advent of the movies’ sound era.  She keeps a scrapbook of the storied career of a movie actress played by Julianne Moore (playing two roles in her fourth collaboration with Haynes) and wishes she could somehow meet her.

Simultaneously, we look in on eleven-year-old Ben, played by Oakes Fegley, who has also lost his hearing,in Minnesota in 1977.  He longs to meet the father he has never known and whom his mother, played by Michelle Williams, barely acknowledges.

Rose and Ben are lonely and isolated – and deaf.

But they are also brave and adventurous and resourceful.

And both runaways have set out to find what they are missing – fifty years apart – by heading for New York City, where each ends up at the American Museum of Natural History.

How these characters are connected, which Haynes divulges quite late in the game, doesn’t register as surprising, but feels both appropriate and satisfying.

And true to the era depicted, Rose’s story is presented as a black-and-white silent film, an appropriate approach to the deafness theme throughout.  Come to think of it, each half seems as if it were made in the period on display: the pre-talkies twenties and the garishly colorful seventies.

Technically – in terms of production design and cinematography and the level of period detail – Wonderstruck is a marvel of authenticity.  But the toggling between periods eventually brings the law of diminishing returns into play and somewhat dilutes the power of the climactic third act.

However, Haynes’ occasional manipulation of the sound to simulate the sensory experience of Rose and Ben is both effective and affecting.

On the acting front, young Simmonds (who is actually deaf) and Fegley (who was Pete in Pete’s Dragon) are extraordinary, the former seemingly launching what should be a remarkable screen acting career, the latter continuing his.

So we’ll journey to 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for the not-quite-entrancing-but-decidedly-well-made Wonderstruck, a double-coming-of-age drama that doubles down, for better or worse, on wonder.

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