Based on children’s novel written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, “Wonderstruck” weaves together two separate but related stories.
Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) story takes place in 1977. He’s a preteen living with his aunt in Minnesota following the death of his mother in a car accident. He’s unhappy, missing his mom and eager to reconnect with a father he never knew. Rummaging through his mother’s stuff he finds clues about his father’s whereabouts in New York City just before a lightening strike renders him deaf in both ears. Despite not being able to hear he runs away to the big city.
Meanwhile Rose’s (Millicent Simmonds) tale takes place fifty years earlier. It’s 1927 and the little girl, deaf since birth, is living with her father, a stern New Jersey businessman. Obsessed with film and stage star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) she sets off to New York City to meet her idol. There’s more to Rose’s story, but no spoilers here.
Up until this point Haynes uses every ounce of artistry in his considerable arsenal to bring these stories to life. New York, both in the 20s and 70s, is presented in vivid detail. Both stories are told with a minimum of dialogue—show-me-don’t-tell-me—with Rose’s time on screen mimicking a silent movie while Ben’s is more impressionistic, creating a vibrant portrait of NYC’s chaotic 1970s street life.
The film works best when Haynes let’s the pictures do the work. For much of its running time “Wonderstruck” plays like a dream, when it gets down to brass tacks—tying up the story threads—it disappoints, allowing reality to crash the party. What begins as a beautifully crafted flight of fancy grounds itself with a thud in the final half hour with a series of incredulous coincidences.