Rated PG: 117 minutes
Three stars out of four
For devoted fans of certain prestige directors, it's always a little disarming to see them make a true children's film. Expectations have to be readjusted in real time as you submit to something else, something different.
That exercise can yield disappointment, but sometimes, maybe even most of the time, the results are transcendent. Think about Alfonso Cuaron's "A Little Princess" or Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." When a master of cinema decides to look at the world from a child's perspective, we should all line up.
"Wonderstruck," the latest from "Carol," "I'm Not There" and "Far From Heaven" director Todd Haynes, is very much for the young - for those who still find pleasure in tactile simplicity, who pour over pop-up books and paper dolls, who fantasize about the past, and whose imaginations are richer, more elaborate and darker than most adults care to remember.
"Wonderstruck" is adapted from a Brian Selznick book, the same author of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which provided the basis for Scorsese's "Hugo." It intercuts the stories of two children, Rose, a young girl in 1927, and Ben, a young boy in 1977.
Rose, played by the magnificent newcomer Millicent Simmonds, is deaf. We see her world in black and white and without sounds. Carter Burwell's beautiful score is our only respite from complete silence. And while things are pretty as a picture - an intentionally artificial rendering of that time - Rose is in agony and unable to hear or communicate with others except with a notepad. She doesn't talk, and hasn't yet been taught sign language. While she oscillates between frustration and annoyance with those around her, she finds some joy in cutting out pictures of and seeing films with her favorite silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).
Meanwhile, in 1977, where every color seems to have a dusty brown undertone, Ben (Oakes Fegley, who also starred in last summer's "Pete's Dragon") is having nightmares and missing his mother (Michelle Williams), a local Minnesota librarian who died recently in a car accident. He carries around a folded up copy of the newspaper clipping in his pocket. He is also isolated from the world around him, and will become even more so when he suffers an accident and loses his hearing, too.
Both children are destined for an adventure soon. Ben finds a clue that perhaps his father, whose identity he doesn't know, is tied to a book store in New York City. And Rose sees that Lillian is set to perform in a play in the city. And both non-hearing kids set out in their respective times to the big city to find what they're looking for, and find peace at the American Museum of Natural History.
The 1977 thread definitely plays second fiddle to the sumptuous and storybook-like saga of Rose in 1927, which is in no small part due to Simmonds' deeply moving performance. Together, though, it feels at times like a stitched together Frankenstein of a film - a grand idea that never quite comes together until it's forced to in the very final moments.
Indeed, the last 15 minutes are undeniably moving. Getting there, however earnest a journey it may be, is a bit of a tedious exercise punctuated by moments of humor and joy and beauty.
Still, for a kid in this age of digital devices and content disconnected from experience, "Wonderstruck" could be its own sort of treasure - a call to explore the real world, to submit to the magic of museums and the enchantment of a beautiful book.