Wonderstruck Review: Todd Haynes Constructs a Boring Look at Childhood

Photo Credit:http://www.newnownext.com/todd-haynes-wonderstruck-trailer/07/2017/

Working with children in terms of both child actors and actually writing characters that are children is like flipping a coin. A film like The Florida Project, for example (or any Miyazaki film for that matter), nails both seemingly with ease. Wonderstruck does not. It is a dry and frankly boring work, detached from its characters to the point where, coming off of his similarly guarded-to-a-fault Carol, this problem has become an unfortunate signature to Todd Haynes’ work.

But Wonderstruck masks its failures with reasonable ambition. The film takes place over two timelines, as a young deaf girl (Millicent Simmonds) in the 1920s journeys to New York and finds herself at the Museum of Natural History, while Ben (Oakes Fegley), who’s around the same age in the 1970s, is stricken deaf by a freak accident and later goes on a similar journey in search of his father after his mother’s (Michelle Williams) death. Entirely silent throughout, the ‘20s timeline turns itself into a full-on silent film, full of winks and callbacks to an era that present day filmmakers have come to romanticize through their own expressions, something of a trend. The ‘70s storyline, however, can’t seem to pin down a style, sending mixed messages with its use of sound that just doesn’t inform the film as a whole.

Yet it’s not just odd stylistic miscommunications that render Wonderstruck ineffective. The film’s silence doesn’t bring through any charm to merely entertain, while Haynes doesn’t bring any of his nuance to provoke a semblance of interest. Wonderstruck either needed to go really big or really small, and sitting all too comfortably in the middle, it mostly falls flat, and that’s largely because of how it mishandled its child characters. As the title suggests, they’re meant to find wonder in their world, but Fegley isn’t given dialogue that feels authentic, and even borders on soapy melodrama, just with a ten year old.

The third act brings around Julianne Moore, who plays a character that would spoil the film’s intended twist and emotional impact, which is a positive for almost any film that does so. But the veteran actress also falls ill to the film’s confused tone, not drawing her character in intimate detail or finding the emotionality to make the film’s attempt at sweeping character revelations land. It’s not a bad performance per se, just an uninspired one likely derived from Hayne’s mismatched tonal direction.

But the film isn’t a complete misfire. A few bright moments of levity between Ben and a friend he makes in the museum, Jaime (Jaden Michael), breathe some life into the middling mid-section. Edward Lachman’s cinematography, while subdued, is quite lovely, just as it’s been in many of Hayne’s films. Still, with a story with unearned payoffs and a misunderstanding of its methods of communication, Wonderstruck is—as far as film’s aimed at awards go—a massive misfire. Grade: C

By Matt Dougherty

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