Wonderstruck is vivid case study in how things can go subtly awry when there is a mismatch between a film’s source material and its director. The feature was adapted from the 2011 illustrated novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, author of the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The two books are conspicuously similar in terms of genre, plot, and themes. Both are fantasy-tinged period pieces about children searching for connections to their parents, and more generally about the romantic fascination with anachronistic ideas, objects, and technologies. In the case of Hugo Cabret, the primary old-fashioned obsession in question is silent filmmaking, and specifically the pioneering work of Georges Méliès. Whatever its flaws as a film, Martin Scorsese’s lavish 3D adaptation Hugo faultlessly captures the enthralled spirit of Selznick’s 2008 novel, in part due to the director’s boundless, school-boyish enthusiasm for cinematic history.
The film version of Wonderstruck, meanwhile, is helmed by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol), a filmmaker of remarkable formal and storytelling prowess, but not necessarily the director who leaps to mind for a giddy, kid-friendly love letter to the bygone arts and sciences. Haynes’ films are penetrating, decidedly adult stories about intractable anxieties and longings. His 1995 masterpiece Safe is essentially a psychological horror film, in which a suburban housewife becomes consumed by her fear of a vague, chemically-induced ailment. It would be a challenge to envision a story more tonally and conceptually remote from Safe than Wonderstruck, the latter a swooning fairy tale steeped in a fondness for museums, bookstores, and silent cinema. This isn’t to say that a filmmaker should never stray outside their comfort zone. However, the perceptible dissonance between story and the director’s natural affinities is so distracting in Haynes’ latest film that it works against what is otherwise and handsome, heartening celebration of discovery.
Wonderstruck concerns a pair of restless tween seekers, separated by a span of 50 years. Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, lives in 1920s New Jersey with her father, while Ben (Oakes Fegley) resides with his aunt in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota at the tail end of the 1970s. Both children are bright, inquisitive, and preoccupied. She draws in her sketchbook and attends silent films; he collects scientific curiosities and gazes through his telescope. Both kids also have unresolved parental woes. Rose pines for her mother, glamorous movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whose clippings she compulsively scrapbooks. However, Lillian wants as little to do with her daughter as possible. Meanwhile, Ben’s mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), was recently killed in a car accident. The pain of this loss and the unsettled mystery of his paternity keep Ben up nights, as do nightmares of being chased by ravenous wolves.
In the 20s, Rose’s stern, distant father (James Urbaniak) has arranged for a private tutor to oversee her education, but the defiant girl is having none of it. She makes her escape and heads to New York City, with the goal visiting her mother, who is currently appearing on the Broadway stage. In the 70s, meanwhile, Ben is rendered permanently deaf by a freak lightning strike, just as he makes a discovery among his mother’s effects. The clues he uncovers point to a used bookstore in New York, prompting the hospitalized Ben to slip out and board a Manhattan-bound bus. Eventually, the two children’s stories intertwine, converging not only on the bookshop, but also on the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Queens Museum. Critically, Ben falls in with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a lonely child his age whose comprehensive knowledge of the AMNH and its secrets ultimately proves vital to unraveling the mystery of Ben’s family.
Haynes distinguishes the two storylines by presenting them in radically disparate styles. Rose’s sequences are shot on crisp black-and-white 35mm film, without dialog or traditional audio effects. In imitation of the silent films that the girl so adores—and plainly signifying the way that she mentally processes the world—the score provides the exclusive aural scaffolding for these scenes. This music not only creates an emotional backdrop for on-screen events, but also suggests sound effects and ambient noise—such as the automotive cacophony of a Manhattan intersection. Ben’s passages, meanwhile, are shot on 35mm color film, approximating the bright, grainy look of period NYC features such as The French Connection and Taxi Driver. Combined with a funk-heavy soundtrack, it’s a look that befits the ‘New York Shitty’ environs of Ben’s scenes. These are suffused with a smog-brown filthiness that contrasts with the silvery glory of Rose’s pre-crash Roaring 20’s world. (The Port Authority Bus Terminal, portrayed at its squalid nadir just prior to its North Wing opening, is prominently featured in Ben's tale as a signifier of the city’s decay.)
The film presents Rose and Ben’s parallel tales with a full awareness of and appreciation for their storybook implausibility—including the contrived, faintly fantastical way that Ben is abruptly bestowed with his co-protagonist’s disability. This isn’t to say that the affected storytelling goes down any easier; Wonderstruck is perpetually bedeviled with an unresolved discord between its grounded setting and twee narrative. However, Haynes and his collaborators are plainly cognizant of the enchanted sensibility that the material calls for, and have elected to eagerly embrace it. The real-world locales lend Wonderstruck some of the cuddly, endearing vibe of classic NYC-based kid lit such as Kay Thompson’s Eloise or Sandra Scoppettone’s Suzuki Bean. The plot weaves in real-world New York locales and history, from the former World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows to the notorious 1977 blackout. However, the story also has a bit of Grimm shading via its myriad fairy tale motifs, among them dead parents, lost children, and big bad wolves.
Whether populated by flappers or disco hustlers, Hayes’ New York is presented as a cosmopolitan wonderland. Unlike other films about kids lost in the Big Apple, Wonderstruck features no stops at the city’s most iconic landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Central Park. Rather, the AMNH is positioned as the cultural hub of the city, befitting a film whose young protagonists are enamored with the peculiar and the incredible. ‘Wonderstruck,’ the old book that initially draws Ben to New York, details the history of the Kunstkabinett, the cabinets of curiosities that served as the precursors to modern museums. Haynes’ film is fittingy besotted in a charming way with the notion of curation, the compulsion to sweat the geeky minutiae in the pursuit of awed delight. Wonderstruck commiserates warmly with everyone who had a childhood collection: stamps, coins, rocks, fossils, shells, flowers, butterflies, or anything else that skewed fusty and nerdy. It celebrates birdwatching, stargazing, and model-building. It lionizes the sort of square academic obsessions that consume precocious kids.
Formally, the film is downright lavish, as peerless in its evocation of 1920s and 70s America as Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Carol were in their sumptuous recreation of the 1950s. Production designer Mark Friedberg is the most conspicuous contributor in this respect, conjuring the prim vigor and shabby dissolution of the Coolidge and Carter eras, respectively, in a manner that is reliably striking without feeling fussed-over. In particular, Freidberg’s revivification of the AMNH of the early and late 20th centuries is a marvel to behold. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and composer Carter Burwell are also essential to Wonderstruck’s lush sense of time and place, providing each period with a sharply-defined visual and musical aesthetic. The contrast has a pragmatic function, marking the terrain as Affonso Gonçalves’ wonderfully agile editing flits between the ‘old past’ and ‘new past’. It’s no coincidence that Wonderstruck begins to feel noticeably sluggish once the divided structure collapses and the film lurches into a lengthy stretch of 1970s-based exposition. This breakdown in pacing is mitigated somewhat by the whimsical stop-motion animation used in this passage’s flashback inserts.
Undeniably, Wonderstruck looks and sounds like an eminently charismatic film, but there’s something strangely hollow and unsatisfying about the feature’s storytelling. Haynes’ engagement with the material feels unmistakably affected and shallow, as if the relative unsophistication of a quixotic, kid-friendly adventure were a flashy, ill-fitting suit that he regrets purchasing. The screenplay by Selznick, who adapts his own novel, fails to solve the story’s fundamental flaw; namely, that there is insufficient dramatic incident to fill a nearly two-hour feature. Wonderstruck accordingly suffers from some aimless stretches that Haynes packs with repetitive chases around the museum and ponderous conversations where the characters struggle with facts that are already well-established for the viewer. The plot is dependent on several enormous coincidences, but, given the film’s fairy tale patina, this is less vexing than the gestures that feel like strained bootstrapping. In one egregious example, Rose’s barely mentioned older brother swoops into the story to conveniently rescue her from the museum guards and a drifting plot.
Notwithstanding Wonderstruck’s unabashed affection for museums, libraries, and other sanctums of discovery, at the heart of the film’s story is a relatively banal quest to connect with vanished parents. If one eliminates all the clutter of the searches, chases, and escapes around New York, one is left with two straightforward tales of childhood angst: Rose’s longing to be near her mother, and Ben’s search for his father’s identity. Given how forcefully Wonderstruck touts the notion of museums as public storehouses of knowledge, the ultimate role of the plainly beloved AMNH is weirdly prosaic in both children’s’ stories. Rose and Ben run their hands over a massive meteorite and peer with curiosity at stuffed gazelles frozen in mid-leap, but the museum is only narrowly germane to the plot. Rose’s story loses a substantial amount of momentum once Lillian rebuffs her daughter’s appeals for attention, leaving the girl with little to do other than wander the city and eventually hide out in the museum. Ben, meanwhile, ultimately discovers that the AMNH is merely the link that brought his mother and father together. It’s a revelation that is only peripherally connected to the film’s broader themes of curating, cataloging, and preserving, and it conveys an exceedingly eccentric lesson: Visiting a museum can lead an orphan boy to his Real Family.