A little gem of a movie — one that should be suitable for a wide range of ages — “Wonderstruck” is concerned with helping us understand what it is like to have no hearing.
Told through two related parallel stories that take place 50 years apart, “Wonderstruck” keeps you rather entranced until the end.
Directed by the talented Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “Carol”), the film is based on the 2011 juvenile illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, who adapted the film for screen. Selznick also is the author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the book Martin Scorsese made into the wondrous 2011 film “Hugo.” While not quite up to the level of that work, “Wonderstruck” nonetheless takes you on a memorable journey — two, if you want to be particular about it — that is likely to stay with you for a little while.
In 1927, we meet Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, under the strict control of her father. She has little contact with the outside world, but she does get away to a silent movie — and sobs as she watches the actress at the center of the story, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), carry a small child through a storm. Rose keeps a scrapbook related to Lillian, so the woman obviously is quite important to her.
And, in 1977, we find young Ben (Oakes Fegley), a lifelong Minnesotan being raised by his single mother, the free-spirited Elaine (Michelle Williams).
“Why do you always look so sad, Benjamin?” she asks her son.
Well, he would like to know more about his father, information she’s keeping from him, even as he’s celebrating his 12th birthday.
“Was my dad an astronomer?” he asks innocently. “Maybe that’s why I love outer space so much? Makes sense.”
Sadly, Ben soon has no parents, his mother dying in a car accident. While he is taken in by her family, he seems so alone.
To make matters worse, an accident soon robs him of his hearing, or at least most of it.
When Ben believes he may have found a clue to the identify of his father, he enlists the help of his cousin to make it on a bus that will take him to the Big Apple.
Five decades earlier, Rose makes a similar if shorter trip because Lillian is starring in a new stage production in New York.
Neither child knows sign language, complicating their efforts to get where they’re going. Each relies, to varying degrees, on communicating with strangers via brief scribbles on notebook pages, but there is a lot of frustration along the way. It is probably the most basic of windows into being deaf, but it is effective filmmaking nonetheless.
While Rose encounters Lillian, Ben makes a friend in Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose dad works at the American Museum of Natural History. Ben’s quests leads him there, as does Rose’s. It proves to be an important stop for both of our young protagonists.
“Wonderstruck” has a few slow stretches, and a point of conflict late in the tale between Ben and Jamie feels ginned up to give the story some juice. That said, this is a compelling, engaging and visually interesting work. (The different looks given to the New Yorks of 1927 and ‘77 really add to the charm and flavor of “Wonderstruck.”)
While it deals with the somewhat-complex theme of isolation, what it has to say about family and friendship should work for children of a certain age. It is, then, a more-accessible work from Haynes, and it would be nice if a wider audience would get a taste of his work. His films can be frustrating — we’re looking at you, the Bob Dylan-inspired “I’m Not There” — but he strives to be interesting.
It’s nice that Selznick was able to adapt his own work here. The tale works as a movie while retaining that appealing feels-like-a-book-story vibe, Selznick’s script eschewing some of the typical movie-structure rhythms.
Both Fegley (“Pete’s Dragon”) and the less-experienced Simmonds give very nice performances, each bringing different aspects to a deaf child in a desperate search for answers. While Simmonds shares some nice moments with Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”), whose Walter works at the museum in 1927, it’s the scenes between Fegley and Michael (“The Get Down”) that fuel a big stretch of “Wonderstruck.” Jamie, who is desperate for a friend, serves as a surrogate for the audience as he learns what it’s like for Ben to suddenly be without his hearing.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much time with the highly talented Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”), but Moore — who worked with Haynes in “Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There” and “Safe” (1995) — makes an impression in her screen time.
And while “Wonderstruck” could prove challenging for some, given its stretches with little to no dialogue, it is likely to make an impression on many who see it.
In theaters: Nov. 10.
Rated: PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Runtime: 2 hours.Stars (of four): 3.