Two children, separated by half a century, experience the marvels of the Big City as they explore it, alone, in “Wonderstruck,” Todd Haynes’ fanciful film of the Brian Selznick novel.
Adults are invited to tap into the magic of childhood adventure, the magical realism that connects these kids across the ages. Kids may be challenged by its arcane history, its connections and coincidences and its pacing, but rewarded for paying close attention to the mystery the movie asks us to help solve.
Ben, played by the properly mop-topped Oakes Fegley, has just lost his mom (Michelle Williams) and his hearing. He’s haunted by nightmares of wolves chasing him through the snow, and by a book about the history of museums — which began as “Cabinets of Wonder,” assembled by collectors of the curious, the odd and the historically/scientifically significant.
That draws him to New York, deaf and too-young to buy a ticket, with Midwestern “victim” written all over him in the predator-ridden Rotten Apple of the mid-1970s.
Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) leaves her New Jersey home and makes a similar trek on a similar quest. There’s a stage and silent screen actress (Julianne Moore, perfect in a two-role performance) she’s obsessed with and determined to meet, perhaps backstage in her latest production (a Louis XIV period piece)
The kids don’t know of one another’s existence. They don’t communicate across time. But they’re connected. The movie makes that plain even as it takes its sweet time laying out the clues that cement that bond.
Haynes (“Far From Heaven”) is most at home in the seedy ’70s, marching Ben through a city he can only gape at in awe. He can’t hear, but he finds a friend (Jaden Michael, a sparkling, open-hearted presence) who stashes the broke, homeless newcomer in the Museum of Natural History, where Jamie’s dad works.
Ben’s sometimes perilous (this was pre-Americans with Disabilities Act NYC), often-silent Polaroid-tinted journey contrasts sharply with Rose’s cacophonous black and white world of trolleys, horse-drawn carts and smokey, noisy 1920s automobiles.
Selznick’s tale keeps these stories apart, but points toward the connective tissue. “Where do I belong?”
Yes, the New York Worlds Fairs play a role, as does that book. The story intersections only peek out, here and there. And the film, which plays a bit long, leads us up blind alleys that serve no real purpose.
But “Wonderstuck” still lives up to its title, an almost enchanting, always fascinating story that reminds us that “Six Degrees of Separation” often overstates that distance, that the past is a lot closer to the present than we think.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements and smoking
Cast: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Jaden Michael
Credits:Directed by Todd Haynes, script by Brian Selznick, based on his novel. An Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:56