2017, PG, 117 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Jaden Michael, Tom Noonan, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 3, 2017
Todd Haynes’ gloriously constructed film Wonderstruck is a thing to behold, even if it seems at times that the parts don’t quite add up to the whole. Screw math: Sometimes the sum total isn’t the totality.
Brian Selznick (the Caldecott Medal-winning author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret – the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) has adapted his own children’s novel for the Wonderstruck screenplay, and it’s probably the first Haynes film that will play well for younger audiences as well as their elders. Two discrete stories, set 50 years apart, are intercut until the film’s climax reveals (for anyone who hasn’t already figured it out) how the tales intersect and enrich each other. In Minnesota in 1977, young Ben (Fegley, of Pete’s Dragon) goes to live with relatives after the sudden death of his mother (Williams), who had never revealed to him the identity of his father. While searching for clues, Ben is struck by lightning and rendered deaf. Still, the boy slips out of town on a Greyhound bus headed for New York to find his father. Once there, he befriends Jamie (Michael), another lonely boy who introduces Ben to the back rooms and innate mysteries of the American Museum of Natural History. Wonderstruck’s other story is set in 1927, and follows the journey of a deaf girl named Rose (Simmonds, a terrific newcomer and also deaf), who hops the ferry to New York from her home in Hoboken, N.J. She is an unhappy child and also obsessed with a particular star of the silent screen, who is making her debut on Broadway. However, once discovered, the object of her affection dwindles in reality, so Rose heads for the same museum as Ben does 50 years later, since that is where her older brother works. Haynes’ frequent star Julianne Moore appears in two roles in Wonderstruck (which, coincidentally she does in another current film, Suburbicon).
The film’s two time periods are easy to tell apart: The story that takes place in 1927 is filmed in black and white and is wordless, looking and sounding much like a silent movie as we experience the world from Rose’s perspective. The 1977 material is in color and filled with sounds. Haynes captures both periods with remarkable detail. Contributions by cinematographer Ed Lachman, costumer Sandy Powell (also a producer), music supervisor Randall Poster, and original music composer Carter Burwell all add to the distinctive spell cast by the movie. A diorama of the city of New York that serves as the magnificent set-piece for the film’s closing beats is breathtaking, yet the story’s conclusion is more visually arresting than narratively satisfying. However, Wonderstruck’s portrayal of deaf experiences and its adult treatment of childhood mysteries are original, and the way Haynes weaves it all together with gossamer strands gives this movie wings.