Wonderstruck

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 18 May 2017
  • Wonderstruck
Film title: Wonderstruck
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Amy Hargreaves, Millicent Simmonds

Todd Haynes follows up his exquisitely melancholic romance Carol with innocent young adult adventure yarn, Wonderstruck.

Based on the book by Brian Selznick (of The Invention of Hugo Cabret fame), while Haynes' new film is well-crafted, it flounders in an overly-contrived conclusion. Wonderstruck is a two-hander, set across timelines in 1927 and 1977. The narratives follow the lives of two tenacious children, both of whom are deaf, and whose paths are inextricably linked across the years.

Mysteries (some entertaining, others tedious) are in abundance, as the children's lives are drawn closer together. There's no denying that Haynes has imbued this gentle tale of whimsy and fate with tenderness and innocence, yet the plot contrivances detract from the overall strength of the narrative. This is a film of many beautiful parts rather than a cohesive whole.

In ’77, Ben (Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon) is living with his aunt, reeling from the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), and plagued by nightmares of wolves hunting him in his locale of Gunflint, Minnesota. That is, until he finds a mysterious bookmark hidden in his mother’s drawer, which concerns itself with the merits of curation, something Ben has an interest in as his bedroom in the old house is bestrewn with curios.

The very same night, in a moment of magical cruelty, he is struck by lightning via a telephone, leaving him deaf. His new disability doesn’t stop him plucking up the courage to head to the New York City address found on the bookmark. The scene of the lost little boy navigating the sweltering city in the era of Funk – captured in an alluring grain and saturated in mellow yellows and burnt oranges – is one of Wonderstruck's finest sequences. 

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, things couldn’t look more different. Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds) is a tough, tomboyish character who spends her days avoiding her short-tempered father, and like Ben, find herself heading to New York in search of answers. Both Rose and Ben find they are drawn to the American Museum of Natural History in a series of contrivances that will link them across the timelines. Shot in stark monochrome, these chapters of the film mimic and pay homage to the movies of the silent era, with varying degrees of success. 

Haynes' take on the material brings to mind Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. The mood is that of whimsy and fantasy, yet here the magic is somehow more mundane. While the story is maddeningly convenient, it is rooted not in magical powers or gifts, but in the dog-eared determination of the children to find answers about where they belong in the world. Haynes maintains their perspective throughout, even keeping the camera locked at mid-height, framing passers-by from the worldview of a child.

Haynes' attempt to link deafness with the silent era is mishandled, with the young Rose staring aghast at signs showing the advent of the Talkies, devoid of reference to the pianos that would have been plinking and plonking in the corner during every performance of a films she attends. Nevertheless, Haynes knits together the timelines with great skill, although not enough to hide his tricks, which ultimately diminishes the pleasure of the piece.

Certainly this is the director's most mainstream movie to date, but don’t be fooled. Wonderstruck is very much a kid’s movie for adults, shot though the lens of an adult’s nostalgia for childhood, rather than a rollicking adventure yarn.

Wonderstruck premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and is on general release from 17 Nov