Director Todd Haynes is no stranger to nostalgia for the American twentieth century. Whether he captures the 1950s in films like Carol or Far From Heaven or the 1970s and 80s in Velvet Goldmine, his are films that revel in the atmosphere of times long gone, bathed in lavish and celebratory set designs that beautifully capture the sense of time and place in his narratives without distracting from those narratives. In Wonderstruck, an adaptation written by Brian Selznick of his novel by the same name, Haynes is afforded the opportunity to express his affection for two time periods in the history of New York City, the 1920s and the 1970s, and while he does craft a beautiful ode to those times, Selznick’s tale feels like an ill fit to Haynes’s dramatic sensibilities.
Wonderstruck tells two parallel intercutting stories about kids running away from their homes to find comfort in New York. In the 70s, Ben (Oakes Fegley) mourns the death of his mother and wonders about the identity of his father. While investigating his mother’s belongings, he discovers clues that he believes may lead him to his father, only to be struck by lightning and rendered deaf in the process. He escapes his hospital room and takes a bus to New York, where he discovers unknown connections between himself and the Museum of Natural History. Meanwhile, in the 1920s, a deaf girl named Rose (played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) escapes her oppressive father to track down a silent film star as the advent of talkies threatens to take that pleasure away from her.
As a visual love letter to the hearing disabled, Wonderstruck excels, showing many scenes with muffled sound or completely silent save for the score, and the performative aspects of the film reflect the time periods in which they are shot. The 70s are portrayed with intense, muted colors and rambunctious energy, whereas the 20s are, in their cinematically silent glory, expressed in sweeping pantomime and exaggerated expression, making the film a stylistic splendor to watch. This is in turn reflected in how Rose is a devoted diorama craftswoman, exemplifying a handmade creativity to the film that reflects the character’s love for the metropolitan city of New York just as Haynes adores cinema of the past.
Unfortunately, one thing that Haynes doesn’t excel at is entertaining children. Ostensibly, Wonderstruck is meant as all ages entertainment, but the non-verbal mechanisms by which much of the story are told aren’t delivered with much flourish to draw attention to them. In other words, this is a film for people with attention spans, not the easily bored children whom this is supposedly made for. With no disrespect to Oakes and Simmonds, their performances are a bit too reserved to be called engaging, and Oakes in particular isn’t great at emoting his character’s thoughts. In fact, about halfway through it is necessary to stop the film for an exposition dump just to explain what has happened so far, primarily because the non-verbal storytelling isn’t up to the task of conveying Ben’s motivations clearly.
Even so, Wonderstruck pulls off an emotionally impactful third act with Julianne Moore in a role that ties the seemingly disparate narratives of Ben and Rose into a coherent whole. It’s not enough to entirely save the narrative from its overreliance on coincidence or the ways in which Haynes fails to communicate information through solely visual means, but it elevates a merely gorgeous film into something with thematic heft and emotional payoff. This is in the lower tier of Todd Haynes’s filmography, but when we’re talking about the director of Carol, that’s still higher than what many film auteurs could hope to achieve.