Todd Haynes’ vaguely spiritual YA adaptation, Wonderstruck, is so impeccably crafted that you can almost forgive it for being so dull. Precision-engineered to be inspiring and educational, it’s the kind of tasteful drama which adults believe that children should like. But it’s adults who will appreciate its first-rate production design and structural balance, while younger viewers will be asking, justifiably, why nothing much is happening. Wonderstruck relies heavily on the movie fallacy, made popular by Paul Haggis’ 2004 crash Crash, that a couple of anticlimactic anecdotes will seem profound if you link them together.
Still, the aforementioned design and structure are impressive. Based on an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck intertwines two plot strands, one set in 1977 and one in 1927, but both featuring a deaf child on a whimsical quest in New York. In the 1977 scenes, the child is 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley, from Pete’s Dragon), a mop-topped Minnesota boy who has never met his father, and whose sad mother (Michelle Williams in a cameo) was killed in a car accident. (Theoretically, it’s possible that Williams will one day play a character who leads a happy life, but today is not that day.)
Determined to discover his father’s identity, Ben asks his aunt to tell him. No, only joking. What he actually does, of course, is to rummage through his late mother’s belongings until he finds an ancient hardback about ‘cabinets of wonders’. The bookmark inside, which is from a second-hand bookshop in New York, has a message to his mother scribbled on it - the sort of teasing clue that turns up in fiction a lot more than in real life. But just when Ben is phoning the bookshop, the telephone line is struck by lightning - wonderstruck, if you will - and it looks as if the film is going to become a blockbuster about a superhero called Phone-Boy. No such luck. In fact, Ben’s ears are damaged by the electric shock, but that doesn’t stop him sneaking away from the hospital and onto a bus to New York.
It’s as hard-edged as a dollop of ice cream
A similar odyssey is undertaken by a girl, Rose (Millicent Simmons, a bright-eyed discovery), 50 years earlier. She has been deaf since birth, and Haynes stages her adventures as a black-and-white silent movie, with no dialogue at all, although with lots and lots and lots of Carter Burwell’s music. Rose adores silent movies herself, particularly those starring Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), so it’s a poignant moment when she sees a banner outside a cinema announcing that it will soon be showing sound films. The idea that the coming of the talkies must have been a tragedy for some deaf people is a fascinating one, but Wonderstruck doesn’t dwell on it. It’s simply used as a pretext for Rose to go on her own trip to New York, where Lillian is due to perform on Broadway.
Haynes is a master of period detail, as he proved in Far from Heaven and Carol, which premiered at Cannes two years ago. And his detailed, expansive recreations of not one but two New York eras are extraordinary. His 1977, especially, seems so authentic in its clothing, its bustle, and its rubbish-strewn streets that Haynes could well have had access to a time machine. Mind you, it’s unlikely that the real New York was ever as friendly as it is to Ben and Rose. As hard-edged as a dollop of ice cream, Wonderstruck has two hearing-impaired runaways wandering the Big Apple, and they suffer nothing worse than pickpocketing between them. And even then the pickpocket is generous enough to steal the cash and leave the wallet.
The film becomes a lecture entitled ‘Retro things that young people should learn about’
The truly gooey centre of the film isn’t revealed, however, until its two heroes visit the city’s American Museum of Natural History at the same point in their respective travels. It’s interesting to see how the museum has changed in the intervening half-century - out go the glass cases, in comes the moody lighting - but Wonderstruck marvels at the exhibits for so long that the parallel plots grind to a halt. They never quite restart. Instead of gripping us with the question of who Ben’s father is, and what he has to do with Rose, the film becomes a lecture entitled ‘Retro things that young people should learn about’, its main subjects being museums, silent cinema, second-hand books and cardboard models. Indeed, young people aren’t just expected to be learn about these things. They’re expected to be blown away by their transcendent greatness, which is a sure sign that Selznick has never been stuck in a museum with a school party of bored 12-year-olds.
Perhaps some viewers will be dutifully transported. Selznick wrote and drew The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which became the twinkly Martin Scorsese history lesson, Hugo, and if you were spellbound by that, then Wonderstruck might work its magic on you. It might also appeal to fans of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which sent another child on a quaint, coincidence-filled New York treasure hunt. But other viewers will feel that Wonderstruck is more twee and less touching than it’s intended to be. Haynes’ cabinet of wonders is exquisitely carved, inlaid and varnished, but it has precious little inside.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.