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'Wonderstruck' is just not wondrous enough

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Directed by Todd Haynes and based on the book by Brian Selznick, “Wonderstruck” tells the stories of two deaf children as they go on separate adventures in different time periods to search for something missing in their familial lives. Unfortunately, both tales aren’t all that compelling to begin with and the film has a tendency to meander, unable to balance the full complexities of both characters.  

Rose, one of the main characters in the film, has her heading out to New York sometime during the 1920s to find an elusive silent movie star. Ben, on the other hand, is trying to look for his father sometime in the late 1970s after his mother passes away. Both kids have an innate desire to explore and expand their frontiers, with the film cutting back and forth between them to point out their similarities. However, it seems the weight of the overarching story doesn’t allow room for the characters to breathe and develop on their own. Ben and Rose are always catapulted into the next situation with only a hint of insight as to what they’re going through. This disconnect between story and character ends up making the film a bit of a chore to sit through.   

This flaw remedies itself later in the third act, when the film finally comes together narratively and the characters both have a satisfying pay-off. This fascinating ending explores how life should be lived to the fullest and why it’s important to always explore that which fills us with awe in wonder.

The theme of family also becomes more rounded and complete. Both kids come from a background where their families are lacking and emotionally hollow in some nature. The main catalyst for these kids to go on a journey through New York is to feel whole by finding other ways to form a familial bond─whether it be by books, friendship or even exhibits from the Natural History Museum. Those lessons seemed like the lifeblood of the film, but unfortunately, they were explored too late.

Overall, the performances are very good in this film. The two lead actors, Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds brought a surprising amount of sensitivity and innocence to the film and their respective characters. Julianne Moore was also good, even while playing two separate, albeit minor, roles. Michelle Williams also has a small appearance in the film, playing Ben’s mother.

Todd Haynes succeeds in making the film look like a painting. With a style that is luscious and deep and has a certain flair reminiscent of children’s arts and crafts creations. The cinematography by Ed Lachman is terrific and is sure to be Oscar-nominated, so will Carter Burwell’s score, which is one of the more inventive scores in recent memory. In most technical aspects (ie. production design, costuming), the film is near-masterful. There are moments in this film that are sure to inspire and instill wonder, but they’re too far and few between to totally recommend watching the film.

Grade: C-

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