Yes, I Was “Wonderstruck” by Todd Haynes’ Newest Film

Millicent Simmonds, as Rose, in "Wonderstruck"
Millicent Simmonds, as Rose, in “Wonderstruck”

Todd Haynes, I dig your style. His Carol was one of the best films I saw in 2016, pretty much perfect in every possible way:  visuals, music, storytelling, acting, characterization, and tragic social commentary.  His current effort, Wonderstruck, may not reach Carol’s apogee, but it comes close.

Like Carol, Wonderstruck is a feast for the eyes.  In jump-cutting between two storylines set in 1927 and 1977, its earlier narrative was shot in grainy black and white that hearkens back to the silent movies that so obsess its girl protagonist Rose (Millicent Simmonds).  The later tale employs color negative stock that gives its scenes a saturated appearance reminiscent of family photos from this era.  Haynes’ use of shadows and darkness, especially in a museum chase sequence, is breathtakingly masterful.

Beyond its primary narratives, Haynes also created two films within the main film.  The first is a silent movie starring a fictional Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore); with its intertitles and heavy emoting in place of sound, it looks as if it were truly made in the 1920s.  The second is a stop-motion gem near the end that is a rapturous sight to behold.

As he did for Carol, Haynes turned again to composer Carter Burwell for his latest movie’s score, resulting in my favorite soundtrack of 2017.  Since Rose is deaf, Haynes daringly chose to make music the only sound for the 1927 portions of Wonderstruck.  This gamble pays bounteous dividends:  when Rose is startled by her father’s wrath or city traffic, the sudden percussion sympathetically jolts us, too.  When captivated by the skyscrapers of New York City, the strings swell with a melodious (but not derivative) echo of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

For the 1977 sections, Haynes occasionally dips into music of that period.  When 12 year old Ben (the main character of this timeline) sits distractedly in his rural Minnesota home, we hear Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”  When Ben’s odyssey takes him to New York City, we’re offered some funky jams by Rose Royce and Deodafo that complement the gritty scenery.  Cleverly, as Rose’s and Ben’s narratives merge more and more closely, the musical styles from the two sections likewise overlap increasingly.

The child actors at the heart of Wonderstruck didn’t draw me in quite as much as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara did in Carol.  Millicent Simmonds’ Rose evades an unhappy home life with her single dad in New Jersey by immersing herself in movies.  When she learns that Lillian Mayhew will be starring in a play on Broadway, she boards a boat to NYC.

Oakes Fegley and Jaden Michael, as Ben and Jamie, in "Wonderstruck"
Oakes Fegley and Jaden Michael, as Ben and Jamie, in “Wonderstruck”

Oakes Fegley’s Ben is grieving the recent death of his single mother (Michelle Williams, seen in flashback).  Now residing with his aunt and her family, he’s compelled to endure the resentment of an obnoxious older cousin.  After a freak accident affects his hearing, he bolts from his hospital bed and hops a bus alone to NYC, using the thinnest of clues to try and track down the father he’s never known.

Both Rose and Ben are inward-looking, stoic youngsters, which makes it hard to snag an empathic toehold on their sad plights.  It’s possible, however, that the restraint in their performances is intentional, because once their stories meld completely, the emotional payoff is substantial.

Wonderstruck is the second film based on a children’s book by Brian Selznick (he also contributed the screenplay here), the first being Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  It’s instructive to compare the two.  Both revolve around resourceful orphans who don’t seem to realize the depth of their loneliness until they’re offered a chance at connection.  Hugo hides out in a Paris railway station until he meets Georges Méliès and young Isabelle.  Ben is befriended by a spunky kid named Jamie, whose dad works at the American Museum of Natural History.  This gives Ben a prominent urban location in which to sequester, like Hugo.

Both Hugo and Wonderstruck also serve up glimpses of early moviemaking, the former through a behind-the-scenes look at the fantastical films of Méliès (A Trip to the Moon the most famous among several dozen others), the latter by its more cursory consideration of the transitional period between silent movies and the talkies.

Additionally, each film immerses viewers in Selznick’s fascination with gizmos and gadgetry of erstwhile times.  Hugo had its jaw-droppingly complex automatons, Wonderstruck the “cabinets of wonder” that predated museums.  In the case of the latter movie, a book about such marvels is a talisman that connects the two timelines, as do visits to the American Museum of Natural History by both characters.  Courtesy of Edward Lachman’s attentive editing, there’s a magical overlap of Rose’s and Ben’s encounters with a giant meteorite at the museum, occurring 50 years apart.

Lastly, both Hugo and Wonderstruck demand that their child protagonists assemble clues from another time to better understand their parents.  Hugo struggles to repair an automaton from instructions in his deceased dad’s notebooks.  Ben uses a love note scrawled on a bookmark to seek his father.

Surprisingly, in light of its creation by the director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, Hugo is the book adaptation suitable for all ages.  Wonderstruck, by contrast, is a movie for more sophisticated viewers, with its frequent temporal jumps and deliberate pacing.  But don’t read “deliberate” as critical code for “boring.”  This is a film that kept me fully engaged for its entirety.  After Carol and Wonderstruck, I’ll eagerly follow Haynes wherever he takes us next.

4.5 out of 5 stars

 

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