‘Wonderstruck’ not so wondrous: Confusing storylines, youthful tone leave film in limbo

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

The screen flickers from black-and-white to color scenes as the stories of two deaf children in two different eras unfold before the audience. Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” is an intricate and intertwined narrative with a lot of moving pieces.

From the sound editing, the converging storylines of protagonists Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley) and the dramatic conclusion of the film, Haynes –– usually profoundly on-point –– might have bitten off more than he could chew.

The simulation of deafness has been effectively done before. “New York, I Love You,” a recent episode of “Master of None,” featured an eight-minute interval after the story of a deaf woman in New York –– with sound completely cut out. The intensity and isolation of that soundless sequence was a powerful demonstration of the reality of the character. The iconic scene from “There Will Be Blood,” in which an oil rig explodes and the protagonist’s son, HW (Dillon Freasier) goes deaf, uses piercing ringing and muffled voices to convey the fresh pain of hearing loss.

That intensity and purpose is lost in the indecisive sound editing of this piece of Haynes’. Moving in and out of soundlessness throughout the film was meant to be powerful and emblematic of the reality of deaf life, but it was more disorienting than anything else. Transitioning from story to story, the film featured almost every sound option available: no sound, muffled voices, ringing, no sound accompanied by music and pure sound — a chaotic frenzy that dizzies viewers.

These decisions were supposed to help the audience empathize with the characters, when in reality, it confuses and thus isolates viewers from the unfolding narrative.

The fickle sound editing is not the film’s only issue. This story is told carefully by switching from Rose and Ben’s storylines to climb closer to the final connection of the film. While the focus of the film is shared between the two characters, Ben’s narrative is far more captivating than Rose’s. Her scenes were somewhat bland, the silent film effect doing more harm than good. While her story is admittedly necessary to serve the film as a whole, Rose’s position as a main character felt forced and unnatural.

That forced feeling is present in more than just Rose’s section of the film, but Ben’s as well. The swelling music, the changes in lighting, even the dialogue all add up to foreshadow exactly what emotion the audience is supposed to feel. The events of the film charge on, guiding the viewers to each emotional pit stop, holding their hand and telling them when to laugh and when to cry. This feeling of being coddled through the film is even more frustrating when you don’t feel what the film clearly wants you to, because “Wonderstruck” doesn’t build a deep enough connection between the audience and the characters.

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Amazon Studios/Courtesy

Though “Wonderstruck” has its problems, it is not without victories. The sentiment of the film itself was strongly conveyed, undeniably hitting the mark of uplifting childhood adventure. Fegley gives a phenomenal performance, perfectly demonstrating the gravity of Ben’s journey and the excitement of being young. The film is flush with scenes nostalgic for childhood and fast friendships. The fantastical ambiance of this realistic story plays out in a harmonious way — a sweet reminder of the grandiosity of the world when you’re a kid.

In this sense, Rose’s character was not a total disappointment, even when overshadowed by Ben’s. Her undeterred ambition is awe-inspiring and even humorous at times. She serves as a unique role model for young girls confronted with obstacles they feel they can’t overcome — her determined nature and positive story encourages them, and everyone for that matter, to push forward dauntlessly through their struggles.

This is a movie for anyone looking to feel uplifted by the adorable kids adventuring through New York, overcoming struggle. While littered with issues, “Wonderstruck” is no worse than your average feel-good movie. “Wonderstruck” tells a wholesome fable of childhood in the face of trauma. The cute cast of kids and the majesty of New York City through children’s eyes make it a heartfelt endeavor that is only really a failure when propped up next to Haynes’ other ground-breaking successes.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].