Todd Haynes creates movies that feel like part of his DNA. Whether they’re originals (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There) or adapted from other works (Carol, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce), they seem to course from his bloodstream into ours. Wonderstruck, gorgeous as it is, feels like something a little less personal, a little less transgressive. Haynes has said he wanted to make a smart film for kids, and as source material, he chose a juvenile-fiction novel illustrated and written by Brian Selznick, whose work also inspired Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. He even brought on the Caldecott Medal-winning author to adapt his story of two deaf children taking place during two separate time periods (1927 and 1977) but united in theme.
Wonderstruck cites a quote from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And it’s in looking at the stars that that the stories of a boy and girl, both 12, begin to unfold. Rose (played by the stunningly expressive deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) grows up in pre-Depression New Jersey, her movements restricted by her strict father (James Urbaniak). The girl’s one escape is to sneak out to the movies to see her silent-screen favorite Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whose wordless reactions echo how Rose responds to the world. It’s here that Haynes and his longtime cinematographer Ed Lachman achieve visual miracles. The latter shoots the
Twenties sequences in shimmering black-and-white – he’ll lens the Seventies sections in
garish and evocative color – and follows the young woman as she grabs a ferry to Manhattan to find this star who, disoriented by the advent of the talkies, is about to open in a show on Broadway. Rose also thinks – and hopes – the actress might be her mother.
Meanwhile, Ben (Pete’s Dragon star Oakes Fegley) lives quietly in Gunflint Lake, Michigan, with a single mom named Elaine (Michelle Williams). She’s drawn to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”; she’s taken from the boy much too soon. The boy finds a love note written on a bookmark with the number and address of a New York shop and these words: “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.” That’s when his house is struck by lightning, leaving Ben deaf but determined to strike out for Manhattan and find the man that might be his father.
Haynes cuts between Ben and Rose as they enter the city, a half-century apart, and engage with a world beyond their wildest imaginings, including a museum with a meteor both can touch. The longing of two lost children metaphorically connecting across time is extremely moving, and ably abetted by Carter Burwell’s graceful score. A climactic sequence set in a New York City diorama built for the 1964 World’s Fair uses models in the way that Haynes utilized dolls to the tell the story of the late singer Karen Carpenter in 1987’s Superstar.
What Haynes can’t disguise, however, is that despite his technical wizardry, the film’s closure feels mechanical and manipulative. Perhaps out of excessive loyalty to Selznick instead of his own creative instincts, the director turns Wonderstruck into a film of extraordinary details that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. But, oh, it gives a lovely light.