"Wonderstruck," like all of Todd Haynes's 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, in black and white, is a silent film, while 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 they each place 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 movie is co-distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
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 recent personal losses. But they're sure salvation is in Manhattan, where someone is waiting who might finally appreciate them.
Minnesota native 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 from New Jersey in search of her favorite silent movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).
We even see Rose watching Lillian's latest movie — a flawless silent movie replica, featuring the actress battling a storm while trying to protect her newborn baby. Rose, like the rest of the audience, becomes overcome with emotion. It's unclear, though, how long she'll be able to appreciate her favorite pastime: Signs outside the theater promise that talkies are imminent, and Rose can't read lips.
Simmonds, who's deaf in real life, hasn't acted in a feature before, though she emotes like a pro, evoking deep feeling without a word of dialogue. She embodies the title of the film, as she looks wide-eyed at the urban spectacles around her, letting us see the world through a child's eyes.
Haynes clearly cares about details, especially when it comes to conjuring up different eras, as he did in "Carol" and "Far From Heaven." He spends plenty of time following his characters as they wander around streets, bus depots and museum halls. We get to soak up the atmosphere, although this languorous approach can sometimes 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, it's hard to become emotionally invested in either one. For all the story's cosmic echoes across the ages, the pacing just feels off.
Still, the approach is inventive. There aren't many greater risks 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 gorgeous finale that includes thrilling stop-motion animation, not to mention a sense of balance as the two narratives finally meet. It takes some patience, but eventually "Wonderstruck" delivers real awe.
PG. At area theaters. Contains images of children in peril and smoking. 117 minutes.