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Movie review: In 'Wonderstruck,' two runaways 50 years apart head to New York City

By: Stephanie Merry The Washington Post
November 9, 2017 Updated: November 9, 2017 at 12:00 pm
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Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley in the 1970s storyline of "Wonderstruck." MUST CREDIT: Mary Cybulski, Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

"Wonderstruck," like all of Todd Haynes' movies, feels like a meticulously constructed treasure. The parallel stories follow two deaf runaways 50 years apart who sneak off to New York City. One story is a silent film in black and white; the other channels the bright colors and funky music of its 1970s setting. At one point, both children end up at the Natural History Museum, where each places a tiny hopeful hand on the same ancient meteorite.

This is more than mere coincidence; it feels like magic. And yet the movie - in all its painstaking fabrication - doesn't entirely cast a spell.

The adaptation of the young adult novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay, dives into big themes. Ben (Oakes Fegley), in 1977, and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in 1927, feel lonely and misunderstood, and both are mourning personal losses. But they're sure salvation is in Manhattan, where someone is waiting who might appreciate them.

Ben, who just lost his mother in a car wreck, is searching for the father he never knew. After finding a bookmark with a personal message among his mom's belongings, he's convinced the piece of paper is a treasure map that will lead to his dad. Rose, whose strict father (James Urbaniak) makes her life a nightmare, sets out in search of her favorite silent movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Haynes clearly cares about details, especially when it comes to conjuring up different eras. He spends plenty of time following his characters as they wander streets, bus depots and museum halls. We get to soak up the atmosphere, although this languorous approach sometimes can give the movie a plodding feel. Other times, the pace gets too speedy, particularly at the start, when the film jumps between Ben and Rose so frequently that it's hard to become invested in either.

Still, the approach is inventive. Few risks are greater than making a silent film in 2017, much less half of one. Though the story lacks some momentum, the mystery of Ben's parentage propels the drama toward a finale that includes thrilling stop-motion animation and a sense of balance as the narratives finally meet. It takes some patience, but eventually "Wonderstruck" delivers real awe.

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