In a film that revolves around characters trying to find where they belong, “Wonderstruck” seems to suffer from the same struggle. It’s a mystery box in movie form, which lends initial intrigue but when its conclusion begins to teeter towards the traditional, any remaining quirky charm rings hollow.
The film splits its focus between 1977 following twelve-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley), struck deaf by lighting through a telephone, and 1927 following Rose (Millicent Simmonds), deaf from birth. Their lives parallel as they run away from their unsatisfying family life to New York City, Ben in search of his father and Rose in search of, well, it isn’t exactly clear.
Integrating Rose’s deafness with the era of the silent film, the 1927 scenes unfurl in black and white without any audible dialogue. The scenes are carefully constructed so that the events are easily discernible by their context, which simultaneously places the viewer in Rose’s confused state and in awareness of the larger plot. That larger plot, however, becomes secondary to the success of the technique which, itself, sputters between silence and speech within the 1977 timeline.
The parallels that connect the two timelines and, by association, Rose and Ben, start alluringly ambiguous but ultimately lead to a connection somewhat too inevitable and predictable.
It’s at this point of conclusion that the film makes the odd decision to disrupt it’s beautiful cinematography with a far too extensive use of miniature figurines. The decision to do so appears to have no purpose other than attempting to recapture the sense of captivating peculiarity abandoned as the film progressed.
Rising above the collective incoherence are the actors, in particular Fegley, Simmonds and Jaden Michael, who plays Ben’s friend, Jamie. Despite their young age and relative inexperience, they give shining, nuanced performances instead of overindulging the precociousness of children. This film, if nothing else, serves as a testament to their remarkable ability to hold their own in scenes with the brilliant Julianne Moore (Lillian Mayhew; Rose) who perfectly balances her command of the camera with the softness of her character.
So “Wonderstruck” really is a mystery box, filled with the delights of acting and innovation and the duds of plot, technique and convention. The beginning of the film emphasizes an Oscar Wilde quote: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” It would seem that the movie, for a moment, escaped the gutter and approached the stars, only to be blinded and fall back again.
Written by Elena Burnett.