We meet Wonderstruck's 12-year-old protagonist when he wakes up from a nightmare. Ben (Oakes Fegley) never knew his dad and his mom died in a car accident, so Ben lives with his aunt in Flint, Mich., where he shares a bedroom with his jerk older cousin (Sawyer Nunes). His cousin's side of the room is covered with movie posters and pictures, but Ben's walls are bare accept for an Oscar Wilde quote on a small piece of paper that reads: "We're all in the gutter, but not all of us are looking at the stars."
The eighth movie by Portland-based director Todd Haynes (I'm Not There, Far From Heaven) is unabashedly sentimental—its central message is literally spelled out in typewriter font above the main character's bed. But even though the movie's point of view can be distilled to a single sentence, Wonderstruck brings the sentiment to life with such imaginative detail that it hardly seems heavy-handed.
We learn from the obituary Ben keeps with him at all times that his mom died in a car crash. From a series of flashbacks, we learn that when his mom (Michelle Williams) was alive, his bedroom was full of toy cars, dinosaurs and a shiny telescope topped with a red bow. Mixed in with the flashbacks and Ben's life in 1977 is an entirely different storyline. In black and white and silent except for an orchestral score, it's centered around Rose, a girl growing up in 1927. Rose is deaf and lives with her impatient dad in Hoboken, New Jersey. She can see the New York skyline from her bedroom window, and in an almost magical display of longing, she constructs a replica of her view out of newspaper.
Ben longs to break free of his isolation, too. In a book about cabinets of curiosities, he finds a bookmark signed by a man he believes to be his dad. But as he's calling the New York bookstore listed on the bookmark, he's struck by lightning. It's then that Rose and Ben's stories begin to run in parallel—Ben wakes up in a hospital bed, screaming to his aunt that he can't talk. "You can, you just can't hear yourself," she writes on a piece of paper.
Instead of deterring his quest to find his dad, Ben's disability spurs him into more drastic action: he sneaks out of the hospital and hops on a bus for New York. Rose runs away to the city, too. Fed up with her irritable father, she decides to end the hopelessness of her longing and leave for New York in search of her mother.
Through his career, Haynes has effortlessly moved from one genre to the next, from quirky biopics to straight dramas. Wonderstruck, his first movie that's rated PG, might be the most difficult to categorize. Haynes' movies aren't inventive in the sense that they test the boundaries of film. Instead, Haynes asserts the cultural value of what gets overlooked, whether by uniting the gender fluidity of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music into one gay icon in Velvet Goldmine, or blowing the Bechdel Test out of the water in Carol.
Wonderstruck asserts that nostalgia and feel-goodery deserve a place in high art—it's hard to think of another kids' movie that's half silent and has a nonlinear plot. Even when its symbolism is more on the nose than evocative, Wonderstruck's message about finding wonder in daily life is still vivid. The movie is beautifully nostalgic down to the most mundane details, like when Ben's cousin fusses to get a David Bowie record back into its sleeve.
Rose and Ben wander through the city with the kind of sage wisdom only 12-year-olds can possess, where bravery and naivety are indistinguishable. Their adventures are permeated by a sense that everything will work out for them, even when Ben sleeps in a dirty bus station or gets his wallet ripped out of his hand on a crowded street. The more places Rose and Ben go, the more people they find to shelter them. In Queens, Ben meets Jamie (Jaden Michael), a boy his age who just so happens to know sign language, has a secret hideout in the Natural History Museum and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to share.
Eventually, Ben and Rose's connection is explained through a lengthy, didactic monologue. It pulls the loose ends a little too tight, and some previously miraculous moments lose their magic once they're revealed to serve a plot summary. The backstory involves the blackout of 1977 and secrets hidden in the scale model of New York City at the Queens Museum. Folding in historical events to the star-crossed plot feels almost jarring, like waking up in the middle of a dream.
Fittingly, Wonderstruck ends with Ben watching a shooting star over Manhattan. Wonderstruck doesn't pretend like it can lift us out of the gutter, but at least for a little while, it can point our gaze at something more beautiful.
SEE IT: Wonderstruck opens on Friday, Nov. 3 at Fox Tower. An advance screening with Haynes in attendance will be held at Hollywood Theatre,