Wonderstruck ***1/2

A fanciful tale of humanity and fate hits your heartstrings and is great for the whole family. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Warmth and sincerity are hard to fake. When done wrong they’re off-putting, fraudulent to the point of insulting fury. When done right they’re genuine and moving, a welcome reminder of the good that opening one’s heart can do for humanity. “Wonderstruck” does it right.

The film, which is based on a children’s book by Brian Selznick, tells two stories set 50 years apart. For the first 90 minutes they are only thematically connected, then they are literally connected in the conclusion. You may see the ending coming. That’s fine. This isn’t trying to jolt you with surprises, it’s trying to move you with its understanding and sense of wonder.

In 1927, 12 year-old New Jersey girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) loves going to silent movies, particularly those of her favorite actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Rose is deaf, so the oncoming transition to talking films is most unwelcome for her. Angry that her father (James Urbaniak) insist she learn to lip read, Rose takes a bus to New York City in the hope of seeing Mayhew, who’s appearing on Broadway. She is soon lost in the city, and finds herself at the Museum of Natural History.

In 1977, Ben is a 12 year-old in Gunflint, Minnesota. His mother (Michelle Williams) recently died in a car accident, and his father isn’t around. He’s hurting. One night he’s on the phone and a bolt of lighting sends an electric shock through the wires, causing him to lose his hearing and be hospitalized. With the only clue to his father’s whereabouts leading him to New York City, he hops on a bus and heads for the Big Apple. He is soon lost in the city, and finds himself at the Museum of Natural History.

There’s a jarring disconnect as director Todd Haynes (“Carol”) initially cuts between the timelines, but once each kid reaches New York the thematic similarities are obvious. More impressively, the story in each timeline feels like a self-contained movie made in the time period it depicts. Rose’s journey is told as a black and white silent film, with Carter Burwell’s musical score aptly punctuating notable moments and title cards filling us in on needed information. Ben’s story looks and feels authentically ‘70s, right down to the production and costume design and music. The fact that Haynes so deftly combines these visual styles with an overarching narrative is extraordinary.

Also extraordinary are the performances. We knew Moore would be good (when isn’t she good?), but the core of the story is with the 12 year-olds, and they don’t disappoint. Fegley, who was the star of “Pete’s Dragon,” gets us to feel for Ben without falling on the time worn child-acting crutch of looking pitifully cute and sympathetic. Ben is an angry young man, and Fegley makes sure it shows. But it’s Simmonds who steals the movie in her screen debut. Simmonds is deaf in real life, and gives a nuanced, heartfelt performance, perfectly conveying Rose’s variety of feelings each step of the way. (A third child actor, Jaden Michael, who plays a boy Ben meets at the museum, is excellent as well.) 

We want movies like “Wonderstruck.” We need movies like “Wonderstruck.” It’s a jolt of emotional originality at a time when so much of what we see feels redundant. It’s not perfect, and it is mildly predictable, but its construct and humanity are enough to win over even the most cynical of hearts.

Did you know?
Moore studied sign language for a month before meeting Simmonds; when they met Moore introduced herself in sign language and they formed an instant bond.