|Millicent Simmonds in the black and white segments|
The 12 year old girl’s destination is New York City of 1927 and then we see the boy on the same quite different central Manhattan streets in 1977. The ‘70s color is often garbage-strewn garish until the magically calming halls of the museum of natural history, which are also roamed in the 1920s period.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman has made doppelganger contributions. Without using silent film limitations but mimicking the mood, Lachman models the 1920s period’s pace and crowds in a remarkable black and white virtuosity aided by revealing soundtrack. The stark visual bounce between decades almost tells the story by images alone.
In the 1920s, the face of the young actress playing Rose, Millicent Simmonds, conveys not the sentimentality of her search for a beloved silent screen actress but an intensity and anger. In the 1970s Oakes Fegley as Ben is equally determined and centered on his search, though the backgrounds looks different. His mother has died – except in flashbacks by Michelle Williams – without revealing to him what has happened to his father. That’s why Ben has run off to New York from Minnesota to search -- and 50 years apart the two children touch the same meteorite at the museum.
Technically this story is a mystery. We don’t know what will connect these two children so far apart in generations, the girl naturally deaf, the boy stricken deaf by a freak lightning strike at age 12, though obviously deafness and a passion for museums are elements in common.
What ties these two together, for those who have not read Brian Selznick’s book, is not explained for a long time, only dropping hints. Yet there is a mood of mutual similarity as each roams the streets on a mysterious mission. We are fascinated by the differences as well as the steps in common.
In this storytelling sense, “Wonderstruck” is quite striking film-making, forcing the eyes and ears to work harder on the nuances than any dialog could alone. I expect the failure to reveal what this is all about will frustrate some in the audience, but I loved the intellectual confusion.
However, director Todd Haynes has made the puzzle more emotionally satisfying than the resolution, as if dancing around the subjects with the full technical glories at his disposal was more interesting than explaining why we are on these journeys. Turns out the explanation is a plot-heavy letdown. That extended fault keeps the film from becoming a masterpiece.
For a time, the best time in this film for my money, we understand the children more from the hypnotic leisure of their searches and the wonderful contrasts and similarities of Manhattan in these generations.
|Julianne Moore in color portion of "Wonderstruck."|
Another youngster, Jaden Michael, provides personality as Ben’s sudden friend. All the children are excellently cast to go directly after their goals. Some performances are finely conceived. Conquering the plot simplistics built into both her roles, Julianne Moore plays Rose’s actress mother and Rose herself in old age. It takes two actors to essay Rose’s brother – Cory Michael Smith, carrying a Harold Lloyd look and manner in the 1920s and then Tom Noonan as a bookstore owner.
It is a shame the ending doesn’t maintain the punch “Wonderstruck” set us up for.