By Tracy Wang
Directed by Todd Haynes, ‘Wonderstruck’ is a drama film based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel Wonderstruck. About two kids in separate periods of New York City, the film brings us on their journeys of running away from the families they have, and looking for their parents. As a film that is targeting children and adults alike, ‘Wonderstruck’ delivers a parallel story of two kids struggling to find their parents that falls short of emotional impact and wonder.
The film begins with Ben (Oakes Fegley) asking his mother again about who his father is, and gets no reply. An accident takes his mother’s life, and he is forced to live with his aunt’s family. One night, he tries to call a bookstore’s number (a possible clue for who his father is), but is struck by a lightning that makes him unable to hear anymore. Similarly, almost fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is unhappy at home with a strict father. Following a famous actress Lillian Mayhew’s career closely, she collects every piece of news on her. One day, both of them decide to leave home, and embark on a journey of finding Ben’s father and Mayhew who turns out to be Rose’s mother. Will they be able to find them? How are they going to survive in the crowded New York City?
The plot of two kids yearning to know and be with their respective parent sets the film with the potential of enormous emotional impact and development. Their repeated requests for their parents are the catalysts for character-audience bonding, but the lack of build-up for embarking on this dangerous journey, especially the one for Ben, actually diminishes the emotional impact and connection that we so need to really follow their journeys. Though the lines of Ben in the beginning do show how he has been asking about his father for a long time, the lack of any background information or stories really make the scene feel a bit forced. Thus, the instant connection that we are looking for slips away, and the not-enough setup for Ben and his sudden accident that makes him deaf make his choice of running away feel so much more about a kid rebelling than a kid in desperate need of finding his father.
Even though Rose and Ben live in different periods of time, their journeys are surprisingly similar. Leaving home, looking for a parent, meeting some obstacles, encountering family or friend have become the general plot for the first half of the film. Director Haynes weaves the two journeys together nicely with interchanging scenes of Rose and Ben. To get an older feel, Rose’s parts are presented in black and white; since both of them are deaf, we mainly get to hear what the surroundings sound like. With the black-and-white theme, and the lack of sound, the scenes of Rose feel very much like a silent film that is filled with drama, action and silence.
‘Wonderstruck’ is very much a film of kids finding parents, finding home, and finding their own identities and perhaps even the meaning of life. However, the ending of Rose being Ben’s grandmother, and their stories connecting in a rather predictable way, we cannot help but have the question of what this film is trying to show or express, except the wonder of its visual.