In rural Minnesota in 1977, a 12-year-old boy is rendered deaf by a lightning strike.
Fifty years earlier, a deaf girl in Hoboken, New Jersey, flees to New York in search of her mother.
The hows and whys of their connections are at the center of “Wonderstruck,” and the frays between those connections are what muffle this childhood fantasy that aims for whimsical, but lands well short of its goal.
Ben (Oakes Fegley, “Pete’s Dragon”) is the Minnesota child, mourning the death of his dreamer mother (Michelle Williams in brief flashbacks) and spinning David Bowie records on his turntable. (“Space Oddity” usages are way up since Bowie’s death; see also this year’s “Valerian.”)
Ben is drawn to New York to answer questions about his father. Back in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) similarly heads off to the Big Apple, where she tracks down silent film star Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whom she reads about in magazines, on her own quest to fill in gaps in her family’s history. The two stories flip back and forth, but don’t quite intersect; a time hop would have helped move things along.
Director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “Carol”) has a love for period detail; “Wonderstruck” works best in its black-and-white ’20s segments (the ’70s section is rendered in color). He would have been better off sticking to the early story and making a silent film.
Simmonds, a deaf actress from Utah, has a wonderfully expressive face and is a joy to watch, but little else in “Wonderstruck” strikes a chord.
Portions of the story center around an Oscar Wilde quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Looking at the stars is one thing; “Wonderstruck” shows that reaching them is another.
Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 120 minutes