Wonderstruck an Overlooked Small Gem

Directed by Todd Haynes
Amazon Studios, 117 minutes, PG.

Director Todd Haynes' latest film is titled Wonderstruck, and I was gobsmacked by it. I also understand why it only earned back about a third of its budget at the box office. The reason is the same as why I didn't make it to the cinema to see it; it appears to be a kids' film. It is, after all, based on Brian Selznick's illustrated children's book. (Had I known Selznick also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which Martin Scorsese so successfully brought to the screen, I might have reconsidered.)

Wonderstruck is indeed a kids' film, yet it isn't. In my experience, most neither-fish-nor-fowl projects confuse more consumers than they land. That's too bad, as Wonderstruck is truly a movie that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. It centers on a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), who lives in Gunflint, Minnesota, with his single mom (Michelle Williams in a cameo). Ben is plagued by two obsessions—a reoccurring nightmare in which he's pursued by wolves and questions about the father he has never known. When Ben turns 12—the year is 1977—he asks for information on his father; instead he gets a wallet for his birthday.

Soon thereafter, his mother dies in a car crash and he is sent next door to live with a relative. Circumstance sends him across the way to his old home on a stormy night—a play on the film's title—and he is struck by lightening at the moment he is using a landline to call a New York City bookstore that he thinks is linked to his mysterious father. Ben survives, but he is left deaf.

Interwoven with Ben's story is that of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a whip-smart but headstrong girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927. She too is deaf—and no, the connection is not entirely direct; the stories are separated in time by 50 years. In each story, though, our two deaf children run away from home and journey to New York in search of an absent parent—a mother (Julianne Moore) in Rose's case.

Rose's New York is a city of wonder—Broadway lights, elegantly dressed people, energy, and a palpable air of optimism. It's also on the cusp of technological change; horses vie with early automobiles for the right of way, and pedestrians know to be careful when trying to cross streets. Ben's New York a half-century later is a decayed, dirty, perilous place filled with winos, hustlers, thieves, and stack-heeled black men. It's still a wonder, but of an edgier sort.

Haynes bathes Rose's New York is grey and sepia tones, as though he's providing a gauzy peek behind time's curtain. Ben's New York is in color, but one of the jarring, garish hues of late psychedelia. Haynes also adds small splashes of grounding detail. Rose's 1927 is that of Babe Ruth, radio, and the transition from silent to sound movies; Ben's 1977 is stamped by inner city blight, television, and the big Consolidated Edison power blackout. In each case, though, the children will need benefactors to survive in a city that's hard on the ears, but is positively cruel to those who hear nothing. 
Wonderstruck is like two separate fairy tales, but Haynes stitches them together expertly into a heartwarming and uplifting story. He skirts the borders of sentimentality, but never quite transgresses them. That's quite a trick, as every part of this film could have gone too far. You will be impressed by the storytelling and strong performances—the kids are very good and Moore plays two roles—but the film's visual impact will stay with you for even longer. In addition to the light, watch what Haynes does with spaces—confined ones such as small rooms, cramped buses, and crowded streets, but also empty ones such as after-hours' theaters and museums, or Flushing Meadows 13 years after the World's Fair closed, the Unisphere already showing signs of wear. Such spaces are perfect metaphors for our two deaf children. They are, at once, open to the vast vistas that their eyes take in, but closed to subtle meanings that are hard to communicate through signs or hastily scribbled words. 

Maybe this film also struggled to put people in the seats because audiences don't expect such sweetness from Todd Haynes. He is, after all, known for hipper projects such as Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), I'm Not There (2007), and Carol (2015). It may not be Haynes' usual fare, but Wonderstruck is wonderment—a veritable cabinet of curiosities. That's a clue, by the way, but you'll have to watch the film to know why!

Rob Weir

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