Wonderstruck: Unconvincing fantasy and even less credible reality

Review: How did Todd Haynes’s messy, overstuffed misfire attract so many stars?

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Director: Todd Haynes
Cert: PG
Genre: Family
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins

It's Todd Haynes's Night at the Museum! Anyone?

Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret allowed for Martin Scorsese to get in touch with his inner-child for Hugo (2011). Surely Wonderstruck, by the same author, which intertwines a family drama from the 1970s with the story of a runaway child from 1927, will allow American auteur Todd Haynes to feel similarly, well, wonderstruck?

Sadly, the only wonder about this messy, overstuffed film, is the bewilderment of seeing so many talented people attached.

Working from his own picture-book of the same name, screenwriter Selznick charts two narratives concerning Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben ( Oakes Fegley), 12-year-old children living in 1927 and 1977, respectively.


Rose is a deaf and growing up unhappily in New Jersey with her strict father (James Urbaniak). She spends much of her time at the cinema or collecting photos of her favourite movie star, Lillianne May (Julianne Moore). Ben, from Minnesota, has lost his mother (Michelle Williams), and is curious to know who his father is. After a freak, magic-realist accident leaves Ben deaf, he heads to New York, just as Rose did many decades earlier. Both parallel journeys end in the American Museum of Natural History.

Todd Haynes has previously juggled six different actors playing Bob Dylan (I'm Not There), weighty intersectional themes (Far From Heaven) and dystopian Bowie and Iggy fan-fiction (Velvet Goldmine).

Parallel journeys ought not be too much of a stretch. But the implausible odysseys of Wonderstruck make for unconvincing fantasy and even less credible reality. The 1970s details are uncomfortably obvious (Rose Royce, Starsky and Hutch); the 1920s world is Paper Moon 2.

Even Carter Burwell's diptych score is heard to struggle with the coincidences and contrivances that ultimately unite the competing strands. Moore's dual roles add to the confusion. The cabinet of curiosities theme, even with Wonderstruck's stop-motion denouement, made for a far more rewarding spectacle in Hugo.

Millicent Simmonds’s expressive performance almost makes the enterprise worthwhile. But this never works as a children’s film, and only occasionally convinces as a grown-up entertainment. Disappointing.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic