Filmmaker Todd Haynes is a visual stylist. Just look at his swoony period aesthetic in Far from Heaven, or Carol. He has plenty to visualize and to style in his new movie, Wonderstruck, with its parallel storylines set in the 1920s and the 1970s. With its child protagonists and kids-eye-view of the world, this rare PG-rated experiment from Haynes may be less filling, plotwise, than his grown-up movies, but it still looks great.
Wonderstruck is adapted from the novel by Brian Selznick, whose very first book was made into the rapturous movie Hugo a few years back. Selznick’s books are a genre unto themselves, combining a certain amount of prose storytelling with extravagantly detailed pencil illustrations that sprawl across the pages. Presenting his stories in visual terms must come naturally to the author, related through his grandfather to Hollywood Golden Age producer David O. Selznick.
So it’s no wonder that Selznick’s stories so often reference movie history. The life and exuberantly eccentric work of silent movie pioneer Georges Melies was the inspiration for the book that became Hugo. The silent movie era also figures in the plot of Wonderstruck: the industry facing the advent of sound film provides a counterpoint to the story of two deaf children on separate quests trying to function in a hearing world.
The story begins in Gunflint, Minnesota, in 1977, where Ben (Oakes Fegley), coping with the recent death of his beloved mother, is searching for clues to the identity of the father he never knew. A freak lightning accident destroys his hearing; nevertheless, when he finds a note on the back of a bookmark from a bookstore in New York City, he runs away from his aunt’s house and boards a bus for the city to search for his father.
The parallel story in 1927 concerns a lonely deaf girl living in New Jersey with her strict father. Young Rose (the wonderful Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life) is always sneaking off to the picture show, enraptured by silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), to whom she has dedicated a scrapbook full of magazine clippings. When her father brings an equally stodgy male tutor into the household to keep her in line, Rose bobs her hair and runs away, taking the ferry to New York City, where her idol is appearing in a Broadway show.
These separate stories of two kids searching for love and family take some interesting twists before they intersect in the last act. The Museum of Natural History figures prominently in both stories, along with its frightening display of snarling wolves, and a meticulously crafted miniature diorama of New York City. But the most potentially interesting set, a 19th Century Cabinet of Curiosities preserved at the museum, is underused. It’s gorgeously rendered in an old book that Ben finds (an illustration straight out of Selznick’s novel), but the big reveal of how it relates to the modern story lacks, well, a sense of wonder—and then we never see it again.
Ben’s misadventures in the city occasionally border on tedium, but Haynes has visual fun with the hip, urban vibe in the African-American community that’s sprung up around the bookstore. And he rocks the scenes set in 1927, shooting in black-and-white, without dialogue, as Rose perceives it all, like a silent movie. Haynes’ film, however, is far from silent, percolating along with a marvelously inventive, often percussive score by Carter Burwell that informs and reflects the action in every frame.
Haynes also mutes the soundtrack to a distant, aural blur in scenes from Ben’s viewpoint, replicating his sense of isolation. But scenes of Ben racketing around with his new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), told from Jamie’s viewpoint, feature standard sound, showing Jamie’s frustration with, but determination to break into Ben’s cloistered world.
In honor of the non-hearing community that inspires it, Wonderstruck features open-caption subtitles throughout. It’s a thoughtful touch for a lovely movie whose message of family, friendship, and tolerance strikes a particular chord these days.
With Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, and Julianne Moore. Written by Brian Selznick, from his novel. Directed by Todd Haynes. A Roadside Attraction release. Rated PG. 116 minutes.