Wonderstruck tells a pair of dueling stories whose convergence by the end results in more than a bit of disconnected schmaltz. There's also an element of anticlimax to Brian Selznick's screenplay (based on his book of the same name). This would be fine if so much of its focus wasn't placed upon the solution of a central puzzle - that puzzle being why the stories are told in such a representative fashion and to what end they are connected - except that Selznick and director Todd Haynes structure the reveal as a surprise of sorts. It really isn't one, meaning that the clenching moment of emotional catharsis never quite hits.
The dueling stories are fifty years separated. In the "present" of 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is struck deaf when a bolt of lightning hits the guest house of his family's residence at the exact moment he was attempting to make a phone call. It's a fable-like moment of utter coincidence in that it stretches credibility but in a way that aids the film's thematic growth. He is searching for his father, after all, a journey that began with his mother's (played by Michelle Williams) insistence upon never talking about the man. After her death in a freak car accident, he journeys from his small town in Minnesota to New York to find answers after a potential lead sends him there.
In 1927, hundreds of miles away in New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), tired of the way her strict father (played by James Urbaniak) treats her, also escapes to New York to find her mother (played by Julianne Moore, whose role becomes a dual one by the end), an actress on stage and in movies, and perhaps a better life away from dull suburbia. Rose is deaf. The period in which she lives is on the cusp of the advent of sound in cinema, something Rose is apathetic about, to say the least. She runs off again to look for her brother in the city. In the future, Ben looks for his father. The journey leads them both to some possible connective tissue at the American Museum of Natural History.
Much of the film's impact lay in the adventures had by both children, performed with naturalism and maturity by Fegley (whose sudden deafness is tragic to watch as he figures out a way to communicate without Sign Language, which he hasn't had time to learn) and Simmonds (a young actress who is actually deaf but also remarkably expressive with the faculties she is able to use - eyes always searching for an avenue to explore what she cannot hear, hands that must express what she cannot say). Rose takes her first steps in a journey toward finding her own identity, and Ben makes a friend in Jamie (Jaden Michael), a child of divorce who leads him through the museum and grasps his loneliness and fear, while searching for clues of his father's identity.
The way Rose's story becomes a literal part of Ben's is frustrating, though, especially the way it is partly narrated back to the audience in a climax that reveals what we already knew. The recreation of separate periods is itself literalized effectively, with cinematographer Ed Lachman filming the portions in the 1920s (told as a silent film) in rich black-and-white and the portions in the '70s in a color scheme reminiscent of Gordon Willis. That only gets Wonderstruck so far, though: Perhaps part of its point is the inevitability of fate, but while that is a dramatically curious point, it is also narratively static. The result is both ambitious and frustrating, with the ultimate weight resting on the latter.
Oakes Fegley (Ben), Millicent Simmonds (Rose), Julianne Moore (Lillian Mayhew), Jaden Michael (Jamie), Tom Noonan (Older Walter), Michelle Williams (Elaine), Morgan Turner (Janet), Amy Hargreaves (Aunt Jenny), Sawyer Nunes (Robbie), Cory Michael Smith (Younger Walter), James Urbaniak (Dr. Kincaid), Raul Torres (Jamie's Father), Lauren Ridloff (Pearl), John Boyd (Danny).
Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Brian Selznick, based on the book by Selznick.
Rated PG (thematic elements, smoking).
Released in select cities on October 27, 2017.