In the quietly luminous adventure “Wonderstruck,” director Todd Haynes precisely details not one moment in time but two, telling stories of children separated by 50 years but united by curiosity and circumstance.
In 1977, in a small town in Minnesota, lives Ben (Oakes Fegley), a 12-year-old living with his aunt, Jenny (Amy Hargreaves), ever since his mom, Elaine (Michelle Williams), died in a car crash. His mother never told Ben anything about his father’s identity. He finds a clue in a book about New York’s Museum of Natural History: a bookmark with a phone number. When he tries to call the number, a bolt of lightning hits the telephone pole, and the shock leaves Ben unable to hear.
In 1927, in Hoboken, N.J., we meet Rose (played by Utah native Millicent Simmonds, in her movie debut). Rose is also 12 and was born deaf. She rebels against her father (James Urbaniak) when he demands she study lip-reading and sign language, rather than go to the pictures to watch her favorite silent star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).
Ben and Rose run away from adult supervision to go to New York. Rose hopes to see Lillian, who’s in rehearsals on Broadway, and later hides out in the Museum of Natural History. Ben arrives looking for the book store on the bookmark and ends up befriended by Jamie (Jaden Michael), who shows him inside where his father works: the same museum.
It would spoil things to talk more about how Rose’s and Ben’s lives run parallel and ultimately intertwine, because the way Haynes and screenwriter Brian Selznick (adapting his own novel) unfold that story is so delicately beautiful to behold. Selznick’s book, the follow-up to “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” (which Martin Scorsese adapted into “Hugo”), tells Ben’s story in verse and Rose’s in wordless comic-book panels — and Haynes emulates that notion by showing Rose’s story like a silent movie, which befits her non-aural view of the world.
Simmonds, who lives in Bountiful and is herself deaf, is an amazing find. Her expressive face and inquisitive eyes carry much of the movie’s emotional load, and she makes that weight seem feather-light. The fact that she can match Moore’s intensity, when the Oscar winner is giving one of the better performances of her career, is proof that Simmonds is the real deal.
Haynes — who lovingly created period moods in “Far From Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine” and “Carol” — realizes the roaring ’20s and scruffy ’70s looks smartly, with every detail perfectly placed. But his capper is the closing scenes, which explain Ben and Rose’s connection through gently artful miniatures (which also evoke Haynes’ infamous Karen Carpenter/Barbie dolls short film “Superstar”).
What makes “Wonderstruck” so magical, so deserving of its title, is how Haynes keys into its young characters’ view of the world. Through Rose and Ben, the movie shows us familiar things like New York City in ways fresh and fantastic.
* * * 1/2
Two children, living in eras 50 years apart, find connection in New York City in this beautifully rendered story.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 10.
Rating • PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Running time • 117 minutes.