Melancholy adult feelings of desire, longing, fear and regret have coursed through the films of Todd Haynes, often wrapped in veils of repression, while others have explored the defiant release of performative transformation. Children, with their unfiltered needs and absence of disguise, have generally been peripheral figures in the director’s work — which makes his spellbinding retelling of author-illustrator Brian Selznick’s 2011 epic fable, Wonderstruck, all the more surprising. Alive with the magic of pictures and the mysteries of silence, this is an uncommonly grownup film about children, communication, connection and memory.
The story begins, however, in rural Minnesota in 1977, where 12-year-old Ben (Fegley) mourns the sudden loss of his mother Elaine (Williams), looking to the night sky with unanswered questions about the father he never knew. Intercut with his story is that of Rose (Simmonds), also 12, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927. She escapes the constant reprimands of her cloistering father (James Urbaniak) by going to the movies; being deaf presumably since birth, she views the era’s transition to talkies with a certain sadness. Rose’s refusal to follow her father’s wishes and learn lip-reading is evident in the torn-out pages of textbooks for the deaf that she uses to make model skyscrapers.
Ben lives with his aunt and uncle and two cousins, but he returns often to the house on Gunflint Lake where he used to live, full of memories of his mother, a local librarian given to wistful abstraction, killed in an auto accident. Searching through her belongings, Ben comes across an exhibition catalog called Cabinets of Wonder, which contains what he believes could be a clue about his father. But immediately after making that discovery, a freak thunderstorm accident robs him of his hearing.
Rose, meanwhile, fills a scrapbook with Photoplay clippings of her favorite screen star, Lillian Mayhew (Moore). She goes to see her latest picture, Daughter of the Storm, an elemental melodrama with organ accompaniment that reduces men and women in the theater to tears, and allows Haynes and Moore to pay rapturous homage to Lillian Gish in The Wind. A newspaper headline about Mayhew appearing in a play in New York ignites Rose’s imagination the same way the book seizes Ben’s.
Haynes films Rose’s story in muted black and white, and the great Lachman’s compositions often recall the intricate detail of Selznick’s pencil drawings in the book. Rose’s section also is silent, aside from the lush strains of Burwell’s wraparound score. Ben’s strand, by contrast, unfolds often to dreamy trance rock, or in key early scenes, to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on Elaine’s stereo.
Selznick’s screenplay captures the ingenious engineering of the book with all its symmetries, and Haynes avoids the distracting virtuosic fussiness of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted from the same author.
Along with absent parents, and silence in a world of words, various incidents and motifs are echoed throughout in each time frame — secrets; storms; electrical outages, including the 1977 New York blackout; stars of both the celestial and Hollywood type; miniature models; the curatorial fascination of collecting. The film also illustrates the hyper-attuned observation of the non-hearing, poignantly noting the differences between Rose — long accustomed to reading a situation and conveying her response with as little as a flickering smile — and Ben, who is still adjusting. There’s a lot to unpack here, and Haynes manages it without crowding the story’s complex emotional geography.
New York becomes a magical destination for Ben and Rose, both of them seeking elusive figures from their past, though the less revealed about what happens to them there the better. It’s not giving too much away to disclose that they each have eye-opening experiences at the American Museum of Natural History. Rose goes there looking for her beloved older brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith), while Ben follows Jamie (Jaden Michael), a friendly stranger whose father works at the museum. That gives the two boys the means to reclaim overnight privileges from Ben Stiller and Co. in a lovely interlude.
The iconic setting yields some of the film’s most memorable sequences, giving Lachman the luxury of shooting exhibits in both color and black and white. The famous dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals provide particularly arresting imagery; never have taxidermy animals looked so soulful. In another of the plot’s countless connective threads, an icy tableau of Minnesota wolves ties back into Ben’s recurring nightmares, while other discoveries jibe with his love for collecting curios.
Although it takes place during the interim between the two stories, the 1964 New York World’s Fair plays a key part, especially the Robert Moses-commissioned scale-model Panorama of the City of New York, which echoes Rose’s mini cityscape of paper buildings back in her Hoboken bedroom. (The toytown visuals also nod back to Haynes’ own career origins with the Karen Carpenter Barbie doll biopic, Superstar.)
The way all the various elements come together is a marvelous narrative juggling act. Affonso Goncalves’ liquid editing gracefully eases back and forth between the dual stories, providing charming juxtapositions. One such sequence is the characters’ arrival in Manhattan, with Rose stepping off the Lackawanna ferry into a business district defined by 1920s elegance and pre-crash bustle, while Ben alights from a Trailways bus and emerges from the Port Authority terminal into a multiethnic sea of throbbing ‘70s color, surging with panhandlers, hustlers and thieves.
The music choices throughout are aces, arguably nowhere more so than in accompanying Ben’s first taste of life beyond snow-white Minnesota with the pumped grooves of Esther Phillips doing “All the Way Down” and Rose Royce’s “Sunrise.” As the 1977 strand acquires prominence, there’s a thrilling blast of Deodato’s epic jazz-funk remake of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” underscoring connections both cosmic and earthbound; and the boys’ night at the museum yields, of all things, Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” which sparks associations with Haynes’ glam-rock fever dream, Velvet Goldmine.
The film is more visually intoxicating than performance-driven, though Moore and Williams bring their usual ineffable class and sensitivity to their limited screen time, with Moore taking on a significant additional role in the moving concluding stretch. The young actors hold the screen with unselfconscious naturalism: Fegley balances pluck and determination with vulnerability; the quietly luminous Simmonds has the expressive powers of a silent screen star; and as Jamie, Michael injects a shot of livewire energy, conveying the spontaneity of instant boyhood friendship. Remarkably, the movie never veers into cuteness or unearned sentimentality.
While it’s something of a departure for Haynes and may divide fans hoping for more of the cool sophistication of Carol, Wonderstruck is unmistakably the work of an artisan whose attention to detail mirrors the role of museum curators celebrated in the story, and whose attraction to the magnetic allure of the past is a defining trait.
It ends on a sublime note with a haunting “Space Oddity” cover by the Langley Schools Music Project, a Canadian kids’ choir recorded by their teacher in the mid-‘70s and rediscovered by outsider-music cultists in 2001. It’s both a perfect child-like closing accompaniment and an appropriate period artifact to cap a genuinely affecting story of children and family that doubles as a work of fabulous cinematic artifice.
Production companies: Killer Content, Cinetic Media
Distributor: Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Morgan Turner, Amy Hargreaves, James Urbaniak, Damian Young, Sawyer Nunes
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Brian Selznick, based on his book
Producers: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, John Sloss
Executive producers: Brian Bell, Sandy Powell
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Visual effects supervisor: Louis Morin
Casting: Laura Rosenthal
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment
Rated PG, 117 minutes