“WONDERSTRUCK” — 2½ stars — Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Jaden Michael; PG (thematic elements and smoking); in general release
Based on the book by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay), Todd Haynes’ "Wonderstruck" is the charming story of two kids who are drawn to the same Brooklyn natural history museum five decades apart.
The first child is Ben (“Pete’s Dragon’s” Oakes Fegley), a young boy living in Minnesota in the late 1970s. He's been staying with extended family ever since the premature death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), who instilled him with a love of the stars and natural history.
“We are all in the gutter,” goes her favorite line from Oscar Wilde, “but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Early on, an electrical accident leaves Ben deaf. Frustrated with his situation, he runs away from home and sets out for New York City, hoping a clue in one of his mother's old books will help him find his missing father.
The second child is Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl living in late 1920s New Jersey. Her mother is a famous actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) who has been living in New York for some time. Frustrated with her own dysfunctional family life, Rose sets out across the river for Manhattan, hoping to reconcile with her mother.
Each child runs into complications, but both are eventually led to the same natural history museum in Brooklyn. There, Ben meets a boy named Jamie (Jaden Michael), who happens to be the son of the museum’s curator, and they begin a pensive friendship, since Ben is still adjusting to his hearing loss and has to communicate with a notepad. Fifty years earlier, Rose confronts her mother at a local theater, gets the brushoff and winds up at the same museum, visiting several of the same exhibits.
While Ben's story is presented in full color, with traditional sound — punctuated by period music like David Bowie's "Space Oddity," which has become shorthand for an atmosphere of cosmic wonder — Rose’s narrative is shot exclusively in black and white, and presented as if it were a silent film from the 1920s. After Ben's accident early in the film, the sound — including the dialogue — is de-emphasized and tries to present the boy's perspective through his new challenge.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that both children are connected by more than their hearing loss. Both are drawn by their fascination with the museum, which we learn has sprung from a historical tradition called a Cabinet of Wonder, where private collectors would gather and feature their unique collections. But unfortunately, a film that builds on a compelling narrative style defaults to a third act of heavy exposition in order to explain Ben and Rose’s cosmic connection.
Still, in spite of the clunky third act, parents and kids may find that "Wonderstruck" has just enough going for it to overlook its flaws. The exploration of a world compromised by hearing loss is thoughtful, and the film's style and delivery are creative, especially for a live-action feature that is appropriate for children. "Wonderstruck" may be more of a matinee than a full-price outing, but there's nothing wrong with a good matinee.
“Wonderstruck” is rated PG for thematic elements and smoking; running time: 116 minutes.