When Wonderstruck opens, it’s easy to be tricked into believing you’re watching a production logo. Quick cuts and an almost painterly style follow a boy chased through the forest by a wolf seems to be the sort of thing that would end with a “Boy Cried Wolf Studio” title card or something. In truth, it’s simply the first steps into the newest film from acclaimed director Todd Haynes. Ever the chameleon, Haynes (who has made throwback 50’s melodramas, glam rock pastiches and high concept Bob Dylan biopics) has set his camera’s eye on the world of children, adapting an illustrated book by Brian Selznick, best known for writing the novel that would become Martin Scorsese’s flight of fancy, Hugo. Haynes always approaches his projects with excitement and innovation, but it’s safe to say that a children’s story is far afield from anything he’s attempted to this point. Regardless of subject matter, Haynes has always shown a knack for melodrama, making the prospect of applying that to a kids’ story something to see.
As one might expect from a melodrama, wonderstruck unfolds itself with deliberate care, taking its time to set its story, disorienting at first until it gradually comes into focus. It is predominantly the story of Ben (Oakes Fegley) a young Minnesotan boy in the 70s whose sense of hearing is taken from him by a freak lightning accident. He believes his father is still somewhere out in the world, and travels to New York by himself to find a bookstore that represents his only clue to his whereabouts. There is also a parallel story that plays out in 1927, in which Rose (Millicent Simmonds), also deaf, seeks to escape an abusive home by running away to New York to find her mother, a famous silent film star (Julianne Moore). Both Ben and Rose’s travels take them to the Museum of Natural History, at which point the film begins cutting back and forth as their experiences mirror each other. Despite their disabilities, they have unending determination in their goal of finding something like a family in a huge city of millions of strangers.
The tale of two children separated by time but united by disability and experience and imagination as they walk the same halls of the Natural History museum five decades apart speaks to the magical realism that was so fundamental to the charm of Hugo. It’s two flavors of silent film, one a totality and the other mixed with real sound from time to time, a reflection of Ben only recently losing his hearing. It’s unclear how long Rose has been without the sense, but things are far more intense and confusing for Ben. Fegley, who starred in Pete's Dragon last year, has a pretty thankless task here, lost and alone despite his determination, and not remotely equipped to handle his newfound lack of hearing. He does a good job with what he can, but the script, written by Selznick, doesn’t do him any favors. It speaks to a schism at the center of the film: the 1920s are just far more interesting and engaging than the 70s.
The silence of Wonderstruck is exquisite. Every flashback to the 20’s is fully treated as a film from the era, entirely without effects of any other diegetic sound and shot in hazy black and white. It’s buoyed by an oft incredible score from the ever-reliable Carter Burwell (he who made Carol and Inside Llewyn Davis into the auditory feasts they are) that evokes the methods used to engender emotion and movement from the time. The young Millicent Simmonds, actually deaf in real life, feels so achingly genuine, a mix of awe and fascination and fear and determination playing across her face as she faces a big scary world alone. For the 70s, Haynes takes his cues from blaxploitation; Ben’s New York experience is all afros and flared jeans and funk music. For whatever reason, this approach doesn’t come off nearly as well as the 20’s, and when that first bit of bass hits the soundtrack, it honestly feels like parody more than homage. The silent era is clearly a pet subject for Selznick, and there’s plenty in this film that feels heavily of a piece with HUGO, but that sense of admiration isn’t present in the 70’s. It creates a desire to skip over Ben’s sections, something that’s reinforced by how often we have to watch a character write something down to him that Haynes then shows to the camera and has him read aloud. It’s exhausting in a way diametrically opposed to the vibrancy and charm of the 20’s.
There’s probably a good 70 minutes of absolute gold to be found in Wonderstruck. It’s at its best when Ben and Rose are living their parallel lives in the museum, exploring the same halls surrounded by a history that unites them, even if they don’t realize it. Haynes’ mounting of the 1927 scenes is a delight and Carter Burwell is doing some of his best and most alluring score work. But the opening act feels too obtuse and the closing act too direct and stuffed with long-winded voice over. When Haynes is telling his story without words, you can see the wonder inherent in Wonderstruck. There are extended sequences in this film that are undeniably highlights of the entire year in film, the sort of moments that remind you just how enchanting a director Todd Haynes can be. But whereas his masterpiece Carol was blemish free, there are times here that boggle the mind and beg the question of just what they were thinking when they chose to go in that direction. That’s the madness of seeing a film like this. It’s often too good to be denied, but just as capable of being so bad that it’s almost embarrassing. You take the good with the bad here; Haynes is too skilled a director to create a film without plenty of merit. But to watch Wonderstruck is to experience that ceaseless, gnawing sensation in the pit of the stomach that it could have and should have been better than it is.