Sometimes I hate not liking a film. It’s usually when the film has the best of intentions, but it just doesn’t connect with me on an emotional or aesthetic level even though it’s trying like hell to tug my heartstrings or please my eyes. But with director Todd Haynes at the helm, I can’t help but say I’m surprised; I was underwhelmed by his last work, Carol, and many of the narrative issues I had with that rear their ugly head here. But there are some good qualities of this film I want to touch on, especially as I suspect this film will be one of the Oscar Season’s frontrunners for Best Picture of the Year.
We follow parallel stories of two children, Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), as they are separated in time and yet experience similar life experiences. Both characters find themselves deaf at the beginning of our story (Simmonds is in fact a deaf actress), and both decide to leave their respective homes to find a parent who they haven’t seen in years in New York City. Rose’s story takes place in the 1920s, all in black and white with only a soundtrack to keep your ears occupied as no audible dialogue can be heard. Ben’s story takes place in the 1970s with a period appropriate soundtrack but his story actually has color and you can hear dialogue from other characters even though Ben can’t hear them. The two leads’ stories converge towards the end as all is revealed of the connection between these two that could be considered a “wonder”…yeah sorry, I couldn’t figure out how else to shove the title in to this review.
So some positives in this film’s favor are the fact your two child leads are very good at what they need to do. Millicent Simmonds in particular is a very interesting performance to see at least as she has to communicate using nothing but a notepad, and yet her face delivers a wide array of emotion that many mainstream and seasoned actors have difficulty with at times. I was additionally impressed that the young lady was also deaf as I’m sure that helped deliver all the issues that usually arise with deafness. For his part, Oakes Fegley doesn’t give as memorable of a performance, but he’s still decent at playing the part of a recently deaf kid (caused by a lightning storm apparently). There’s also some big emotionally charged moments towards the end that really don’t connect with me, and he’s absolutely integral to making it work.
Ultimately, that’s my biggest gripe against this film. Despite the solid production design, decent actors, and period appropriate soundtrack, the whole experience left me kind of empty inside. That may have something to do with the fact that the first hour or so really felt like a slog to get through, as the narrative meanders about (not unlike The Florida Project), especially as you try to deduce what exactly is the connection between these two main characters. The film improves slightly when the plot introduces major clues demonstrating the link between Rose and Ben, but for me it comes too little too late.
Perhaps if the rest of the cast was helping the plot along this issue may have been abated, but the trouble with that is that you barely hear any one else talk in this movie. Julianne Moore is here and she genuinely feels like she was sleepwalking through her performance, especially towards the end which straight up required a powerful and nuanced performance to get the emotional rise the film was so desperately seeking. Cory Michael Smith (Riddler from Gotham) makes another cameo in a Todd Haynes production (he has a single scene in Carol), but he exits out of the film way too damn early and we’re given no time to hang out with him. Really, the only other decent support cast came in the form Jaden Michael’s Jamie, who makes fast friends with Ben. The kid has some decent charisma, but the film flubs his character by using him to shoehorn some majorly manufactured drama that doesn’t feel earned nor does it feel like it was necessary at all.
Honestly, the film kept losing me at many points as it tried to tell a traditional narrative in the most humdrum way imaginable. Now normally a director can utilize some interesting imagery to keep audiences attention during that time, but Wonderstruck flubs this as well. While the sets all look great, nothing about the camerawork or the framing of each scene grabbed my attention at all. It all felt too workmanlike, too matter-of-fact, and too run-of-the-mill. I’ve held similar issues about other films before, and this one is no exception. But it makes for a frustrating viewing experience because I can’t diss it for being flat out incompetent, but I can’t enjoy it for visual splendor either. It simply bored me and didn’t give me anything to recommend aside from decent production design.
I don’t hate the film, but this is hardly worth a trip to the theaters. Maybe if you were in the mood from seeing the world from a deaf person’s perspective, this might give you some ammunition; but I’d skip this in the run up for checking out the best of 2017. Wonderstruck is a very low…