Todd Haynes is a unique case among the breed we dub auteurs. While that title certainly applies to the eclectic filmmaker and his impeccable instincts for aesthetics, he nevertheless is constantly trying to challenge himself and reinvent his style. No two films in his oeuvre are ever quite the same, and that can lead to some wildly different sensory experiences. Unfortunately, it can also lead to some of the best intentioned misfires.
Hence if there is one work that will be almost certainly understood as Haynes’ biggest disappointment, it’s going to be Wonderstruck, a perfectly charming and visually sumptuous film. Yet for all its style, this ostensible reach toward a children’s film arrives empty and remote, beautifully crafted but entirely without the spark that is needed to light up a child’s face, never mind an adult’s.
Told across two simultaneous period piece settings, the neat trick about Wonderstruck is how the narratives are seemingly unrelated and aesthetically distinct—albeit older viewers will almost certainly guess the secrets before the film reveals them. The chronologically first (and superior) narrative follows a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) living in 1927 New Jersey with an unsympathetic father. More annoyed by his child’s disability as opposed to engaged with it, the father forces Rose to daydream about her favorite movie star of the silent screen, played by the ever graceful Julianne Moore.
And, oh yes, these scenes are shot in black and white and as an often humorous silent film. Indeed, in the closest Haynes will ever come to attempting comedey or whimsy, there is a lighter touch to the ‘20s sequences that are welcome, evoking fantasies about making it in the big city. Except instead of a scamp, we follow here a young girl who runs away to New York to meet Moore’s icon of the stage and screen.
Unfortunately, the primary narrative follows Ben (Oakes Fegley), a child of the ‘70s devoted to David Bowie and who has aspirations of living in the Big Apple. Or at least that becomes his goal after his mother (a cameoing Michelle Williams) dies in an off-screen car accident. So as the tragedies continue to pile up for Ben, he too runs away and toward a quest that he thinks will end with him finding his father… in a ‘70s authentic Manhattan. There he’ll groove on the energy of the Lower East Side and marvel at the wonders of the Natural History Museum.
Wonderstruck is a complementary contrast of styles and world-building. Both stories follow runaway children with more similarities than initially meets the eye as they take Manhattan. But the said Manhattan is presented via intentionally jarring contrasts. Filming the ‘20s scenes like a jostling silent film, and the ‘70s sequences with zooming cadence and a negative print color that pops, these scenes convincingly recall the type of movies Haynes obviously cherishes from his youth. Wonderstruck’s cinematography is almost as impressive in its subtle complexity as its production design. Designer Mark Friedberg did an uncanny job of recreating authentic and bygone New York cityscapes that are grounded in a lived in vitality.
Alas then there is not enough alive within the figures who populate it. In the ‘70s section, Ben meets a boy named Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose remarkable enthusiasm for helping Ben solve the mystery of his unknown father belies how little imperative there is in the narrative, or the character’s journey. Whereas Michael gives a fresh and lighthearted warmth to their adventure, Fegley’s performance is the one truly inauthentic element in Haynes’ entire canvas. But as this child is at the center of it, all the elements around it can often crumble, especially as the film’s lethargic pace putters to a standstill for much of the second act.
There has been much made out of the film’s greeting at Cannes and the New York Film Festival, and Haynes’ embrace of the young adult’s need for fantasy and the call to adventure. But for all his aesthetical gifts, Haynes reveals an inability to step into the shoes of a young person and convey that close-to-the-earth vantage through a film camera. Rather the effect is like an adult imagining what whimsical and sun drenched Soho pavement appeared like to a child of prehistoric times.
Simmonds fares better, which is all the more remarkable given that she has a hearing disability in real life, yet her sequences lack the broadness of the silver screened whisperers this movie is so obviously wistful for. Nevertheless, her sequences intrigue before being cut short in service of the ‘70s narrative, which admittedly has an impressive ending. Concluding on an obvious revelation and a vast exposition dump that belatedly connects all the dots, Haynes also finds a way to alleviate the flatness by the use of some stunning stop-motion animation to fill in gaps for moviegoers. It is actually a sweet and graceful bow placed around the whole film.
This coupled with a screenplay by the source young adult novel’s Brian Selznick confirms Wonderstruck’s artistic commitment to cultivate its namesake in viewers. But as a work that can most only be admired for its technical marvels (and striking narrative misjudgments), the one real wonder here is how this was expected to actually be considered a child’s delight.
Wonderstruck screened at the New York Film Festival and opens on Oct. 20.
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