Runaway kids escaping to a strange, new town in search of a parent. This subject has always been a favourite for films and plays, the most notable being the recent Tony Award winning THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, in which a boy travels to London to find his father. IN WONDERSTRUCK, a young deaf autistic boy leaves home after his librarian mother is killed in a car accident. All he has is a little clue of a museum. He takes off with some cash obtained from his Aunt Jennie (Michelle Williams), gets his wallet snatched but eventually finds out the truth about his father, who he initially knew nothing about.
WONDERSTRUCK appears like a a typical story but director Haynes (CAROL, POISON and his best movie SAFE FROM HEAVEN) decides to do it different. The openly gay director has always dealt with isolated loner characters who has to come to terms with some truth. In WONDERSTRUCK, because the subject is deaf, Haynes blacks out all words, so that the film feels like a silent movie with just background music. The film is alternatively shot in colour and black and white for the flashbacks (in the year 1927). It seems a good tactic but it does not all work. For one, the film ends up very difficult to follow. With no dialogue, one has to figure out who is whom, how the subjects are related and basically what is going on with the plot. It does not help that the film intercuts two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them. Each tells the story of a child’s quest. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her father’s New Jersey home to find her idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father. Moore plays two roles – the older Rose as well as Lillian Mayhew which confuses matters even more.
The reason the film is called WONDERSTRUCK is revealed towards the end of the film. The film’s sets are amazing, special mention to be made of the New York City model though details are not really shown.
Director Haynes leaves the audience much in the dark for the first half of the film. Though one might, upon considerable thought put all the jigsaw pieces together, it is a very frustrating process. Director Haynes, gives the full explanation during the last third of the film, what then is the purpose? Is it to illustrate to the audience the inconveniences of being deaf?
The cast largely of unknowns (excepting Moore, Michelle Williams in a token role and Tom Noonan) including Fegley do an ok job, noting exceptional.
Though credit should be given to Haynes for his non-conforming storytelling techniques, it does not really work. It comes together at the end, as if Haynes gave up and decided that it is safer to tell it all the usual way.