Hmm, so it’s based on a book, huh? Never read it, so I can’t decide if I’m excited or not. Hell, even after seeing the trailer a couple times now, I still can’t really decide. The story looks like it’s about this boy living with his single mom. He doesn’t know who his dad is, but happens upon some evidence that he might be an astronaut. His mom doesn’t give any information, but he acquires some more evidence that takes him on a journey through the city – New York? – he lives in, alone, happens upon a friend, and all the while, his journey is being mirrored by a flashback of, I think, his mother when she was a child and possibly all culminating in the boy learning the truth of his real father.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Oakes Fegley (PETE’S DRAGON , 3 episodes of both PERSON OF INTEREST [2011 – 2016] and BOARDWALK EMPIRE [2010 – 2014]), introducing Millicent Simmonds (feature film debut; congrats, miss), Michelle Williams (CERTAIN WOMEN , I’M NOT THERE. , HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER , and upcoming films THE GREATEST SHOWMAN  and VENOM ), and one of my biggest Hollywood crushes, Julianne Moore (SUBURBICON , FREEDOMLAND , and THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK ).
Now for the crew. Directing, we have Todd Haynes, known for CAROL (2015) and I’M NOT THERE. Penning the screenplay, as well as being the original novel’s author, we have Brian Selznick, known for HUGO (2011), as well as the novel for that movie. Composing the score is Carter Burwell, known for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), A GOOFY MOVIE (1995), and RAISING ARIZONA (1987). Finally, the cinematographer is Edward Lachman, known for WIENER-DOG (2016), I’M NOT THERE., and SELENA (1997).
Overall, I think the trailer is a jumbled, incoherent mess, but I wager the movie itself is going to be alright. It’s got some good talent in the spotlight and behind the scenes, so I think it’ll be solid.
This is my honest opinion of: WONDERSTRUCK
Set in 1977. The story follows young Ben (Oakes Fegley). His mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) recently passed away from a car crash and he’s been living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Happening upon some clues as to who is father might be, or rather where to find him. However, an accident happens, getting struck by lightning, and his hearing is destroyed. When he wakes up in the hospital, he sets out to New York from Minnesota to find his father. Simultaneously, we are shown a separate storyline set in 1927, following a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who sets off to look for Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a silent-movie actress that she idolizes.
Correcting myself: Ben thinks his father was an astronomer, not an astronaut.
I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, this movie is pretty boring and takes way too long to get to where it’s trying to go, but on the other it’s heart-warming, emotional, and even has a style to it that I got into.
Let’s talk about those negatives. If you read my summary, you noticed that this movie is basically two stories in one. Ben’s story in ’77, and Rose’s story in ’27. Here’s the thing, there is zero fluid transition into her story. The pop in so randomly that it’s almost painful to sit through. The moment something’s going on with Ben, the scene ends and then BAM!, we get more with Rose. There’s no rhyme or reason as why the movie cuts to her, it just chooses to and this is pretty consistent throughout the movie. Even when you get something of a breather from them, the story will immediately flash back to Rose and you’re reminded of your borderline frustrations. I can see someone getting legit upset with these choices.
Also, I can’t claim to know how deafness works, but I’m calling this movie out… if someone is holding a landline to their ear, and a lightning bolt strikes the telephone wire the landline is connected to, that person doesn’t get electrocuted and go deaf (at least, not in the way it’s portrayed here)! This movie isn’t some weird fantasy taking place in 1977, it’s a drama. No fantastical elements at all. And yet, this bizarre crap happens.
And let’s be honest here, Jamie (Jaden Michael) is a pointless character and serves only to pad out the runtime. Really think about it. Ben is on a journey to look for his father that he never met. Jamie can point him in the right direction. But because he’s a loser with no friends, he sabotages Ben’s plans so the two can hang out. In a way, it’s more creepy than anything and this takes up a good twenty or so minutes of the movie. So it’s really hard to feel for the Jamie when Ben explodes at him angrily. You’re 100 percent on Ben’s side and it’s kind of a wonder why they remain friends when they reunite later on.
On the flipside, just like Ben’s adventures in the museum being a pointless detour, Rose’s time in the museum isn’t any better. Eh, rather it feeds back into what I said about it taking its sweet time getting to where it wants to go. Like, she explores the museum, and for awhile, I thought this was going to end up being a tour of the museum and expand into New York as seen by a young deaf girl. But nope, this extended stay in the museum has one solitary purpose. The curator of the museum is, TWIST, her older brother Walter! That was, what, half an hour of build up that should have taken half that time at worse?
Having said all my complaints, which so hurt the film in the long run, there are some undeniably good things about this movie that I couldn’t help but get attached to.
Despite Fegley being a pretty solid actor for his age, it’s ironic that his story doesn’t pick up until after his adventures in the museum, and the majority of the film is held up by Rose’s story. Yeah, the character with the most random placement is actually the best part of the movie. Never mind that young Simmonds is a very good young actress who acts mostly through her expressions, but the style in which her story is told is the most compelling and clever, both visually and on a storytelling basis. It’s all in black and white, like an old-timey movie. More than anything, it’s a silent film. Zero dialog, just pure score and very minimal sound effects. You know how in old films, the dialog is through cutting to a quick single sentence quote? That’s cleverly done via the characters writing on notepads. While Ben has Jamie utilize it when they’re talking to each other, I feel like it stands out much better in Rose’s story, simply because of how infrequent they are. Not to mention, the her journey is chock-full of surprises, which I’ll tackle in the spoilers.
And as much as I think the scenes with Jamie are padding, it’s hard not to get sucked into their connection. I thought the scene with Jamie teaching Ben the alphabet in sign-language was a cute moment as he’s sharing half his sandwich with him.
Originally, you just think that Rose is living with her mean dad and that she wants to travel to New York to find the actress she really likes. Turns out, the actress is actually her mom, who quite possibly abandoned her to pursue a career in acting, as evidenced by her frustration in her being there at all without the least bit of love to show for her daughter. Hell, neither of her parents seem to care much about her, with the notable exception of her kind older brother, the curator, which, despite my complaints about the build-up to the surprise, was in fact, a good surprise.
Hell, circling back to the very first scene with her, you’re kind of lead to believe that the silent-film approach to Rose’s story is just a weird artistic direction the movie takes. But no, it’s not until the second-ish scene where you realize, “Oh! She’s deaf!” Even that was its own little twist.
And the best part of the film is definitely the climax when Ben meets older Rose, played by Moore in a dual performance. This got raw for me. After an hour and half of building up, we finally get why we’re seeing Rose’s story at all. She’s Ben’s grandmother! I mean, none of this ultimately becomes a huge surprise once they start piecing everything together, but when Ben learns that his dad died a long time ago, you feel every ounce of those emotions between Ben and Rose and their utterly sweet connection. Never mind that Moore is so incredible that I bought that she knew sign-language (maybe she actually does), but you see her thoughts racing across the screen through her eyes like subtitles, but not a single word is spoken from her and it truly incredible to watch these two actors work off of each other. To be honest, with the exception of Jamie popping in at the last minute, these series of moments are perfect. Perfect enough to choke me up, anyway.
I might have to admit bias toward the movie, especially at the end, but despite its glaring flaws, I like this movie. If the transitions between Ben’s story and Rose’s story were more imaginative and sensible, this might have been a pretty unique and stylized movie. The visuals for the 20s and 70s are fine in of themselves, but it could have gone above and beyond. And there’s probably way too much of this movie that could have been cut down to flow more nicely and suit the narrative better. But I can’t ignore the emotions I felt and I simply adore the young actors, Simmonds highway robbing the show like a champ. By the end of the day, I’d say despite my liking for the movie, it’s probably not going to be for everyone. I can see the more boring aspects of the movie either putting you to sleep, or enticing you to watch something else. But I really think that if you give the movie a fair shot all the way through, the payoff is worth it. I still recommend it as a strong rental, or at a discount theater. I don’t see myself owning this movie, and probably not remembering it months later. Having said that, I was struck with wonder… eventually.
My honest rating for WONDERSTRUCK: 4/5