It’s hard to imagine any child below the age of 14 enjoying Wonderstruck. But that’s the age of many who will likely see when it’s released on Amazon Prime Video later this year, per its distributor’s demands, as opposed to in its theatrical run, which begins in Boston this Friday.
Indeed, its arthouse bow seems made more for the adults in the audience than anyone else — those who can effectively put the words “Todd” and “Haynes” to an illustrious filmography full of ruminations on the 20th century and the art (music and cinema) that it produced — and as such, it’s a little hard to determine who exactly this was made for. At points, it’s significantly more slight than the rest of Haynes’ work, which gave character and energy to each specific film’s visual splendors, and also a little more heady and complicated than one might expect.
Wonderstruck is the second part of a two-film thesis statement by the director, coming directly on the heels of Carol, his attempt at crafting a queer romance worthy of its Sirkian drama and pathos. If that film was a realization of Haynes’ talents, one that showed the world that he could make the kind of films that his own heroes would be envious of, this is him dealing with the reality of his lived childhood and his adolescence as a filmmaker. Wonderstruck, sadly, is only somewhat successful at the former, which makes up much of the runtime, but when he’s dealing with the latter, it’s a gorgeously sentimental delight well worthy of the wait.
Based on the graphic novel by Brian Selznick (whose other acclaimed work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was adapted into the 2011 film Hugo by Martin Scorsese), Wonderstruck tells the intersecting stories of two deaf children at various points in history as they explore New York — specifically, the Museum of Natural History — and they’re each on quests of familial understanding. The one closest to Haynes’ heart is the story of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a normal Minnesota boy growing up in the summer of ‘77, who is fascinated by museums and has his room organized like one. His life is thrown into disarray when his mother (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Michelle Williams) unexpectedly dies in a car accident, and he’s left in the care of his aunt. He begins exploring through his mother’s things, and discovers something left in a long-forgotten book: A bookmark from a New York bookstore, with an inscription that hints at the identity of a father he’s never met. He attempts to call the number of the bookstore on the bookmark, but a lightning bolt hits a telephone pole near his house and he’s electrocuted. Ben’s rendered mostly deaf by the strike, and spends some time in the hospital recuperating, but that bookmark keeps biting at him. And so he goes on the lam, heading on a bus to a city he’s totally unfamiliar with in order to find his elusive father.
Haynes renders ‘77 Manhattan with immaculate precision, and his choice cinematographer Edward Lachman brings a warm haze to the summer air, full of the flashy clothing of the moment and the feathered hair and afros sported by each and every person walking by, no matter how plain. There’s still a danger to these streets — Ben stays the night in the Port Authority Bus Station and has his wallet stolen by a random thief soon after leaving there — but Haynes and Lachman really try to bring the overwhelming feel of a city like NYC to a child to the forefront of the audience’s minds.
And, of course, it’s stacked with the music of the day — Bowie, Deodato’s jazz-funk take on “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Fox on the Run” — and it’s absolutely commendable that Haynes doesn’t only stick to the good shit, even if it’s his nostalgia sandbox that we’re watching him play in. Ben’s friendship with a New York boy named Jamie (Jaden Michael) blossoms over the course of the movie, after Ben asks him for help finding the old bookstore. His father works in the Museum, and the two of them bound about inside of its lushly-photographed interior, as Ben begins to understand exactly why he was meant to come to New York in the first place. There’s a beauty and captivation to that landmark, which is captured gorgeously — there’s an entire section of still photography in the film that could make up a must-have book — with the wildlife shot in their intimidating and quiet glory, and the touchy-feely bits of the museum, such as the preserved meteorite in the middle of a room about space, that have a tactile quality to them on the screen.
A similar sort of familial wanderlust that draws young Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress in her first role) to the city from her home in Staten Island some 50 years earlier, in 1922. Deaf from birth, she bristles at her buttoned-up father (James Urbaniak) and his demand that she learns how to speak with the help of a therapist. She spends her time making paper buildings out of pages from her textbooks and idolizing a silent film actress (Julianne Moore, in the movie you’ll want to see her in on Friday), whose pictures she tears out of rack movie magazines at the general store for her scrapbook. One day, she discovers an article about her actress idol in the newspaper, saying that she’ll be on Broadway for a limited run of shows. So, she sneaks out of the house and onto the Ferry to travel into the city and meet her beloved movie star, and of course a great deal more happens, but telling you anything else would spoil a fun reveal that comes midway through Rose’s story.
It’s the silent section of the film that proves the most taxing, though not for the reasons that you might expect. For one, the black and white cinematography of the era proves a bridge too far for Lachmann, and it’s due to a rare reluctance on Haynes’ part to fully commit to the silent aesthetic. That would require the aspect ratio to change and for the lighting to be just a bit more extreme and the acting to be a bit more broad, and outside of a brief moment starring Moore’s 1922 character, he’s completely interested in continuity with his film’s other half. Carter Burwell’s score, as well, bludgeons ears into submission, and I left the movie wondering what it would have been like for the silent section to be, you know, silent. Perhaps the imagery might have landed better for me, but I found the section to be a bit of a drag. That is most definitely not a slight to Simmonds, who is an incredibly talented young actress with an utterly heartbreaking and emotive quality to her movement and her expressions here, and her work is a joy to watch when you’re not being attacked by the score or the choppy-back-and-forth between eras. So much of it works in theory — all of the parts are there, in fact — but it never manages to equal its groovier predecessor.
At times, it’s an honest struggle to enjoy Wonderstruck to its fullest — there’s a disconnect between what Haynes wants us to feel and what we should be feeling for the first hour and a half and the juxtaposition between eras causes us to watch the same events twice to ensure their parallelism. Yet that last thirty minutes makes all of the the difference, in which the director swoops in and injects his film with some much-needed and deeply-felt sentiment, surrounded by some of the most evocative imagery that he’s worked with since Superstar. He works with miniatures once again, to utter delight and devastation on the part of the in-the-know audience, and he’s finally able to lean on the strengths of his performers’ interactions, rather than their reactions to their surroundings. There’s utterly gorgeous model work that goes along with all of this, and Haynes has never been more sweet — not saccharine — to any of his characters. It’s tempered with a immense sadness of the finality of life, but it ultimately builds up into something totally and utterly moving.
In some ways, cities are already mausoleums of memory, and Haynes has found a way to photograph that without seeming trite. These sequences are so damn good that they make the slow start feel luxurious and lovely, though I’m not personally sure that I’d want to sit through it again, especially because I’m afraid of crying in public (thank god for press screenings). Wonderstruck is undoubtedly my least favorite of Todd Haynes’ work — few efforts by any filmmaker will ever top I’m Not There or Velvet Goldmine or Carol — but it is gorgeously empathetic and lovely cinema well-worth braving its own peculiar troubles.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Header image via Amazon.