Wonderstruck was destined for success. It had phenomenal source material: an acclaimed book by Brian Selznick, who already proved his works were especially screen-compatible with 2011’s Hugo. It had the directing talents of cult favorite filmmaker Todd Haynes, who directed the groundbreaking Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and queer classics Poison and Carol. It had a rock-solid cast, Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions backing it, and it even competed for the Palme d’Or.
All this is especially interesting because the movie is not good. Sure, it has charming moments, a great soundtrack, pretty good cast, a real sense of wonder, but Todd Hayne’s melodramatic style combined with Brian Selznick’s, let’s say, inexperienced screenwriting work in tandem to create a film devoid of purpose, thoroughly sappy, and at times insufferable. The very first scene in the film is so laughably poorly-written that I breathed a sigh of relief when the main character went deaf.
One of the major problems with the film is that it delivers exposition like Mike Tyson delivering a punch to your jaw. The aforementioned scene contains lines in a conversation between one of the leads and his mother like “Happy birthday, twelve-year-old” and, completely unprompted, “So, dad was an astronomer?” A character who can only communicate through writing, in a very hectic scene, takes extra time to write “I miss you, mama,” just so that the audience doesn’t have to think too hard. Later on, the same deaf character, now adult, writes entire paragraphs of exposition in a matter of seconds.
The film also does a pretty poor job expressing the main twist of the book, that the girl from the ’20s is the grandmother of the boy from the ’70s. Sure, in the film, the grandmother is played by Julianne Moore, who also plays the girl’s mother, but the audience’s only incentive to put it together is that the movie would be utterly pointless otherwise. The decision to differentiate the two time periods aesthetically by having the earlier one be black-and-white is one of the most uninspired decisions Todd Haynes has ever made, in what is easily his least inspired film. The black-and-white portion of the film is abandoned entirely a little more than halfway through, which is kind of what happens in the book, but it makes much more sense in that case because the perspective shifts to an older Rose (the female protagonist), where in the movie we’re still following Ben (the male protagonist) when we’re introduced to adult Rose.
The characterization in the film is pretty shoddy, too. Ben’s friend Jamie lies to him to keep him from finding out about his father for no reason other than to make the movie about 20 minutes longer. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to lose him, but there’s no reason to believe he would lose him once he found his grandparents at the bookstore. Part of the reason Rose being the grandmother is rendered baffling is because a large chunk of Rose’s life is left out of the story, and the two seem like completely different characters. Ben’s brother is the second character introduced in the entire movie, and we literally never see or hear from him again after the first few seconds.
Now, a few positives. Todd Haynes may be melodramatic, but he’s certainly a good director. He plays with some very clever concepts in the film, and does a lot with very little dialogue. My favorite part of the whole movie is the sequence where Ben and Rose have both just arrived in New York and are just exploring the city. There’s no dialogue, no plot or character development, but it’s a purely magical moment, something I was hoping to see more of in this movie. The kids are phenomenal (Have you noticed how all the child actors got really good all of a sudden in the past couple years?), and some of the adults aren’t really pulling their weight, but the focus is on the kids, and it really works. The potential romance between Ben and Jamie is probably the sweetest aspect of the film. Like I said, I really appreciated much of the soundtrack, especially the jazz-infused ’70s portion. There are parts where it seems to be throwing bells and whistles in to be quirky without purpose, but it’s still mostly captivating.
Still, I couldn’t give Wonderstruck more than a 3.8/10. It suffers from many of the same issues I found with Carol (a film I did generally like, to be fair), coupled with a godawful script and source material that really lends itself much better to one of Selznick’s visual novels than a feature film. I’d like to see these kids go places, and it’s always good to see Todd Haynes working, but this is definitely one you can skip.