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Movie Review: 'Wonderstruck'

I don’t know this for sure, but I’m willing to bet that the movie Wonderstruck is based on a book that’s been described as “unfilmable.” I mean, it is based on a book, that much I do know. And judging by the movie, I feel pretty good saying that if the book hasn’t been called “unfilmable,” it should have been. Because while the book has been highly acclaimed, the movie doesn’t seem to be sure exactly how to do what it wants to do.

Wonderstruck follows two separate children in two separate timelines—Ben, from  Minnesota in 1977, and Rose, in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Both children are deaf, Rose apparently since birth, and Ben following a freak accident. And both end up alone in New York City, with Rose traveling to see her absent mother, a film and theater star, and Ben on a journey to find the father he never knew. The movie rapidly crosscuts between the two, so rapidly, in fact, that it’s hard to grab on to either storyline emotionally before being shoved back over to the other.

Eventually, of course, the two timelines meet, as they must in a story like this, and loose ends are tied up-- though not necessarily all happily. What I found disappointing is that, for a movie called Wonderstruck, I felt very little actual awe or wonder. The best movies about kids have that, they give you an idea of what the world really looks like for the children, where everything seems big and confusing and amazing. I just didn’t feel any of that.

And this surprises me, because Wonderstruck is directed by Todd Haynes, who made the gorgeous Far From Heaven and the wildly inventive Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. He’s a deeply creative director. But still, we’re not given much of a feeling for the interior lives of the children, something I might have expected Haynes to excel at. He plays with sound, yes, to deal with their deafness, but that’s about the extent of it. We get no other real feeling for what it’s like to see the world through their eyes. It’s possible Haynes was just the wrong director here, but if someone with his imagination couldn’t do justice to this story… who could? 

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.