Wonderstruck is the follow-up to director Todd Haynes’ critically-acclaimed 2015 picture, Carol, and a faithful adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling book by the same name. Selznick also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which inspired Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and like that film, Wonderstruck is a stirring tale about discovery, legacy, and our connection to the past. Nuanced, mesmerizing, and deeply moving, Haynes has crafted yet another cinematic gem to add to his oeuvre.
Wonderstruck tells the story of Ben (Pete’s Dragon star Oakes Fegley), a curious young boy with a bedroom full of maps, models, and encyclopedias (yes, encyclopedias, Google them). Shortly in, his mother (Michelle Williams) passes away and he’s sent off to live with his cousins. Ben is curious to learn about his father, a subject his mother refused to discuss until he was older, and after his mother’s death, Ben comes across a clue that may offer answers to the mystery surrounding his dad.
This is where things get peculiar. A lightning bolt strikes Ben’s home just as he’s making a phone call, which sends an electric charge through the phone line. The blast knocks Ben out, sends him to the hospital, and leaves him completely deaf. Undeterred by the setback, Ben escapes the hospital and travels to New York City in hopes of tracking down his dad. All the while, Ben’s story is crosscut with the tale of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young, deaf girl making her way through New York City in 1927. As Ben and Rose’s stories progress, they begin to overlap in uncanny ways.
I can understand if people walk away from Wonderstruck bored, confused, and just not “getting it.” While this work is more accessible than Carol, Haynes has once again crafted a film that requires its audience’s active participation. Wonderstruck moves along at a measured pace and refuses to hold your hand along the way. There is a nuanced thematic symmetry that binds Ben and Rose’s parallel stories together, and I’m not sure that it works for those who only pay attention to the surface level. Despite the Spielberg-ian trailer, the film won’t appeal to casual moviegoers. Instead, it offers Todd Haynes fans, people who enjoy independent cinema, and those who feast on beautifully-crafted movies plenty to enjoy.
I’m usually not a fan of child actors, and Fegley doesn’t bring anything to his performance as Ben that will force me to rethink my stance; he does a serviceable job, but his character never grew on me. The adult cast members, however, are all exceptional. Michelle Williams isn’t in the film very long, but she makes the most of her limited screen time, and her presence lingers. Likewise, Tom Noonan doesn’t have much to do, but his character is so damn warm and compassionate that I wanted to see more of him; I can’t think of another actor who switches between kind and creepy roles so effortlessly. Julianne Moore shows why she is one of the finest actors working today with a performance that puts her contemporaries to shame, conveying an entire spectrum of emotion without even speaking.
One of my favorite aspects of Carol was the immaculate production design, and while Wonderstruck doesn’t carry the same moment-to-moment visual splendour, there is one sequence towards the end of the film that is worth the price of admission. I don’t want to get too spoilery, but the Wes Anderson-esque sequence involves a scale model of NY, a load of exposition, and the film’s impeccable score. Oh, and what a score it is.
Haynes recently referred to the score as “almost a character,” and I can see why. Ben and Rose can’t speak, so Wonderstruck‘s music tells much of the story. The score conveys the children’s curiosity, sense of wonder, and moments of triumph; its enchanting melodies continued dancing around in my mind long after I left the theater.
Sometimes a film has a specific hook that grabs my attention — it may be an actor, a genre, or a cinematographer that pulls me in. Sometimes it’s easy to say why a movie sits with me for days, weeks, or even years. And then sometimes a film’s effect rushes over me as ethereally as a summer breeze, and it’s difficult to articulate exactly why; it just resonates on an emotional level outside of characters, plots, and themes. This is the level I find myself touched by Wonderstruck.
Wonderstruck is a wistful film that opened doorways to parts of my mind that have been locked away since childhood. It reawakened dusty old memories of times when I saw the world through less cynical eyes. I enjoyed feeling the surge of these memories resurfacing more than I liked anyone one performance, line of dialogue, or musical queue. It’s unusual for there to be such a wide gap between what I thought of a film and how it made me feel, and I look forward to returning to the Wonderstruck to see how it affects me after a second viewing. Expertly written, well-acted, and beautifully shot, Wonderstruck is a stunning feat of technical artistry that connected with me on the deepest emotional level.