The thought of Todd Haynes directing a kids movie is, at first glance, inherently odd. Similar to Martin Scorsese tackling Hugo, the established filmmaker behind mature, dense, softly impressionable R-rated films like I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Safe and Carol doesn’t seem like the type who would jump into anything child-friendly. Hell, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story alone should’ve been enough reason to suggest Haynes would never make anything playable for all ages. But each of these movies contains a great sensitivity and sincerity that’s provided by the director himself. He makes movies with a sense of joy and wonder, with passion and exuberance to spare. In that sense, it was only a matter of time before Haynes made a film like Wonderstruck.
Based on the juvenile fiction novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the source material for the aforementioned Hugo (I’m sensing a trend here…), Wonderstruck is another ambitious and tenderly engrossing entree in Haynes’s expansive resume, a beautiful film filled with great warmth, sweet insight, good intentions and winning earnestness that helps smooth over the general lumpiness of its double-folded plot. The story follows two children from two separate eras, one set in 1927, the other in 1977.
In the latter, the orphan Ben (Oakes Fegley, very good) wrestles with his newfound grief and alienation following the recent death of his librarian mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams). In the former, Rose (an incredibly impressionistic Millicent Simmonds), lives in silence. Born deaf, she finds an unspoken connection with famed actress Lillian Mayhews (Julianne Moore), and she escapes her Minnesota house and goes to New York City to find her. Meanwhile, Ben is similarly determined to go to the Big Apple to find his long-lost father, a man who owns a bookstore but not a father who paged home.
But just as he gets ready to call him in the middle of the night during some heavy downpour, he is struck with the kind of ill-fate that seemingly only exists inside the movies. A bolt of lightning shoots the house, goes through the telephone, zaps Ben’s ear and instantly turns Ben deaf, in a whimsical condition that he is not quick to learn.
Wonderstruck, especially when seen through Rose’s soundless black and white world, typically communicates through the worldless perspectives of their inquisitive children. It’s a fragile, gently humming picture, one that values the integrity and intuition of its young protagonists while also never looking down upon them or belittling their quests. It’s a cutesy film, but never overly so (nor, thankfully, annoyingly so), and Haynes’s distinctly light touch keeps Wonderstruck from becoming too cloying or overbearing.
And yet, something missing. The film can be moving, but never overwhelmingly so. While there is symmetry between the two different timelines, they’re rarely seamlessly intertwined together. Wonderstruck feels a bit too effortful in its emotional impact. While it is not necessarily schmaltzy or overdone, it did remind me of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in that specific sense. While I don’t share the public’s undying hatred for that film, that is a movie that wants you to be moved before you’re actually moved. Wonderstruck isn’t quite as clumsy, but it’s not quite as neat and smooth as it should be.
Selznick’s screenplay, adapted from his own novel, has some clear difficulties providing proper focus between the two different narratives, and unfortunately, Rose’s storyline is often left overlooked in favor of Ben’s, even though Rose’s segments are when the movie is at its fullest and where it really thrives. Simmonds is a radiant screen presence, and she instinctively knows how to say a lot without saying anything at all. It’s a shame Wonderstruck only periodically provided us with opportunities to watch the first-time actress provide such a rich, wonderful, quietly heartbreaking performance. Hopefully, future movies showcase her apparent strengths. She has the potential for greatness.
Wonderstruck is shot beautifully by Edward Lachman (Carol, Far From Heaven) and it’s scored elegantly by Carter Burwell. It’s a swelling, patient picture, filled with reverence, melancholy refinements and joyful bouts of celebrations, and even if it doesn’t touch upon greatness, it is so insistently good, and good-hearted, that it would feel wrong not to celebrate it. It’s not a revelation, but it is humane, and by the time the ending swoons in, you are taken by its harmonious captivation. Wonderstruck doesn’t hit you as hard as it should, but it’s moving nevertheless. And in the end, it does, in fact, feel like a Todd Haynes’s kid film, which is something you wouldn’t ever expect to utter. There’s more to like than to love, but it’s so wholesome and pure-hearted that you want it to succeed. It is not Haynes’s at his finest, but it’s the acclaimed filmmaker at his most benevolent. It’s not quite wonderful, but it’s sometimes pretty close to it. By the end, the impact is felt.