A young Midwestern boy and a young girl from New York share a mysterious connection 50 years apart.
In Wonderstruck, two family-friendly period tales with cute kids aren’t better than one.
Director Todd Haynes’ follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Carol is a gorgeously crafted, spectacularly scored affair that pens love letters to the silent-movie era of the 1920s and the disco-laden films of the ’70s. But the fantasy-tinged narrative of Wonderstruck (**½ out of four; rated PG; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, nationwide Nov. 10), which Brian Selznick adapted from his novel, is where the movie sorely lacks emotional connection.
The concept hinges on parallel stories — with a pair of deaf children, one newly so — working in concert in different decades. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is increasingly frustrated by her New Jersey existence: Her beloved movie theater is touting the coming of talking pictures and her stern father (James Urbaniak) forces her to lip-read and speak. She runs away from home and heads to New York City to seek out Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a star of stage and screen whose luminous career Rose documents in a well-kept scrapbook.
Interspersed with her journey is one set 50 years later with another youngster who hits the road. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a Minnesota kid also in need of a change in status quo, after losing his librarian mother (Michelle Williams) and being haunted by strange dreams of snarling wolves. He yearns for the father he never knew, and finds a clue in a book that hints his dad may be in Manhattan. The freak accident that takes his hearing also spurs him to take a long bus ride to the Big Apple, and his quest takes him to the American Museum of Natural History — the same place that drew Rose five decades earlier, as well as in adulthood (played by Moore).
The black-and-white story of young Rose is magnificent: Simmonds is a cherubic-faced gem and she brilliantly captures the kid awe of witnessing a big-city landscape, a far cry from Hoboken. Haynes plays it very much like the movies Rose loves, with Carter Burwell’s excellent score adding grandiosity and complementing Simmonds’ voiceless performance. When Rose’s dad yells at her, the angry orchestral blast is just as blistering for the viewer as spoken words.
Problem is, the ‘70s-set counterpoint just doesn’t measure up to the filmmaking artistry. It’s not bad, per se, but Ben getting lost in New York and finding a surprisingly loyal friend in a local boy (Jaden Michael) lacks the nuance of Rose’s path — at least until Moore shows up for a welcome injection of storytelling starpower. At the very least, Wonderstruck doubles down on Moore’s typically impressive acting and lets Williams also shine via flashback.
Relationships are revealed and wrapped in a way that’s a little too neat, and the weak link is obvious (sorry, Ben). Still, youngsters don’t often get awards-season fare like this they can sink their teeth into, and Wonderstruck works best as half of a great silent film and, with Simmonds, the showcase of a star being born.
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