Directed by: Todd Haynes
Premise: Based on the book by Brian Selznick. Two parallel stories: in 1927, a deaf girl (Millicent Simmonds) searches for her mother in New York City and in 1977 a boy (Oakes Fegley) journeys from Minnesota to the Big Apple in search of his father.
What Works: The filmmaking craft of Wonderstruck is terrific. The movie is beautifully shot. The 1927 portions are filmed in black and white and imitate the feel of a silent movie while the 1977 scenes have the analog look of movies from that period. It’s also very well edited, shifting smoothly between its two parallel narratives and crosscutting the action in a way that enhances the impact of each story. Todd Haynes is a filmmaker who uses music very well and the soundtrack of Wonderstruck is effective. Carter Burwell’s score operates much like the music of silent era motion pictures while the 1977 portion of Wonderstruck matches the score with songs like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Eumir Deodato’s version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” The songs are selected with purpose and they are elegantly mixed into the soundtrack. The 1927 portion of Wonderstruck is the more interesting half of this story. The filmmakers shoot the movie from their young protagonist’s point of view and the dialogue is muted so that the viewer experiences the world as this deaf girl does. Actress Millicent Simmonds conveys a lot through her face and posture and Simmonds makes for a sympathetic and engaging character.
What Doesn’t: The 1977 portion of Wonderstruck is not nearly as good as its 1927 counterpart. Unfortunately, Wonderstruck primarily takes place in 1977, especially as it nears the end. The acting isn’t as good in the 1977 sequences but that’s partly due to the weaknesses in the story. Young actor Oakes Fegley is forced to deliver some clunky dialogue and reconcile illogical and unmotivated character choices. Several critical beats in the movie make him obnoxious and unsympathetic. Wonderstruck suffers from gaps in its storytelling, especially as it relates to the young man’s apparently deceased mother (Michelle Williams). We don’t get enough information about the mother or what has happened to her. The plotting strains the movie’s credibility with a lot of coincidences and stupid reveals. Wonderstruck is an example of storytelling suffering from an overabundance of tidiness. Everything is so perfectly connected that the film becomes unbelievable. It doesn’t have the randomness and messiness of reality. Wonderstruck appears to be intended as a sort of urban fairytale like August Rush but it isn’t whimsical enough to achieve the tone that it needs to succeed. Most detrimental, Wonderstruck is never all that engaging, especially in the 1977 portion. The movie suffers from a lack of dramatic stakes. This boy is out to solve the mystery of his family but the filmmakers never give us a reason to care if he finds the answer and when he does it’s preposterous.
Bottom Line: Wonderstruck has elements that are very impressive but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It is stylistically bold but it doesn’t have an interesting or coherent story holding all the pieces together.
Episode: #675 (November 19, 2017)