Wonderstruck is a great title, would probably be a remarkable book to read but it’s not so much a wonderful feature film to sit through unless prepared. Watching it feels as if you’re reading it. Everything takes too long to happen. Not surprisingly, it is based on a critically acclaimed novel; one written by Brian Selznick. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this isn’t worth a watch because it is in that it’s beautifully orchestrated, well-crafted and is quite inspiring to watch but it could be a dash too slow for some.
It starts introducing us to the main character, Ben (Fegley). In 1977, he lives through the death of his mother, Elaine (Williams), whom he admired so much. Being very independent and capable, she has told Ben very little about his father except for his name. She was the type of woman who knew enough to develop Ben’s curiosity but sees no reason to fill his head with the knowledge he doesn’t truly need. Instead, she teaches him what matters to her most such as a favorite quote by Oscar Wilde that also becomes Ben’s favorite, ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’ She encourages his astute, youthful and insightful imagination when he asks about its meaning and instead of answering the questions she makes him tell her what it means. When she dies a short time later, he holds on dearly to all she gave and taught him.
Living with his aunt now, his interest in his father, who’s from New York, grows. To find out what we’re in for at this point, we can break the title of the film down. Wonder can mean to marvel and speculate about the origin of something like the solar system, which Ben does often. Struck is to encounter something suddenly or unexpectedly. Not only is Ben an admirer of the skies, wondering if his father was, too, but lightning strikes him when he’s on the phone and poor Ben loses his hearing. It’s here we cut to 1927 where a young deaf girl, Rose (Simmonds) fantasizes about a life beyond hers. She admires an actress named Lillian Mayhew (Moore) and decides to go to New York to find her.
Now the very accomplished director Todd Haynes (Carol) takes the material he has been given of these two youngsters and cleverly marries them by building a cohesive plotline. He manages to structure the suspense to keep you guessing as to what Ben and Rose are headed toward and why. Choosing music by the incredibly brilliant composer Carter Burwell, who has scored or composed over 100 films, (Three films this year; Goodbye Christopher Robin and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, as well as this one) was genius on Haynes’ part. Flipping back and forth between the 1920’s and the 1970’s made the music incredibly important to remove you from one time period and plop you, emotionally and all, into the other on a continual basis. In fact, you feel as if you’re in two movies, but the music never loosens its grip on you and you’re firmly planted in the story.
On his quest, Ben meets Jamie (Michael), a child as alone as Ben who is looking for a friend. The pair goes to the Museum of Natural History and Ben is taken with what he has been missing from this world. They run all over the building, passing this display and that display while Rose, fifty years earlier is doing the exact same thing in the exact same building walking passed the very same pieces and display cases. As this happens and as the boys investigate an unbelievable coincidence, you’ll feel the interest in you intensify because this must be leading to a beautiful… something. But honestly, this is where the film lets you down. An incident here, an act of fate or chance there leads not to wonder or spectacle but to regularity and commonality that one was hoping in this world they’d be escaping. The film is beautifully done with gorgeous music and superb acting by all but the souvenir at the end of this trip was that there really wasn’t anything worth taking.