There are probably only a handful of contemporary American directors worthy of being called great, and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Todd Haynes is one of them – not just because of the consistent artistry shown in his work, but also because he’s a true humanist. Whatever the subject matter, he adds an empathetic touch to the characters that gives the film its depth and human context.
In the sweet, beguilingly innocent WONDERSTRUCK, we get to witness this amazing capacity of Haynes once again, as he gets under the skin of two deaf children, born fifty years apart, each trying to figure out their place in the world. It’s a skillfully told, impeccably styled and scored film that above all else beats with an uncalloused heart. While the story might not have taken full advantage of an enchanted premise and ultimately leaves a somewhat limited impression, it’s hard to complain about the spirited, gloriously fanciful ride itself.
The movie begins with 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) being woken up from a recurring nightmare in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977. We soon learn that Ben’s mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), who had kept the identity of Ben’s father a secret from him, was killed in an accident. To find out the things he’s always wondered about himself, Ben follows a single piece of clue and hops on a bus to New York. Meanwhile in 1927 New Jersey, sharp-minded but hearing-impaired Rose (Millicent Simmonds) feels trapped in her own home and also travels to the Big Apple to be with her film star mother Lillian (Julianne Moore). Intercutting between the two plotlines, WONDERSTRUCK eventually becomes one bittersweet ode to childhood, family and life’s many unexpected turns.
Both leads – Fegley and Simmonds – are great, and not in the precocious “Look I can cry on command” kind of way, but by being present and unselfconscious, letting their youthful instincts rather than any efforts to wow guide their performances. Moore turns in multiple incarnations of the same character on and off screen in a key supporting role (watch out, Oscars!), while Williams, dependably compelling as she is, is barely in the picture.
As mentioned earlier, I think Brian Selznick’s screenplay (adapted from his own novel) could use some further refinement – especially with the climatic reveal that feels a bit too easy after two hours of momentous build-up. As can be expected from a Haynes film, all technical aspects of the film are top-notch. Ed Lachman’s cinematography is gorgeous, especially where it captures the steamy, grimy look of 70’s New York and also in those museum interior scenes. Sandy Powell’s costumes, what can we say? That woman knows a thing or two about fabric and can dress a hippie street crowd like nobody’s business.
If there’s one sure Oscar bet to place here, though, it’s probably for Carter Burwell’s varied, evocative, all-around magical score. In Rose’s half of the story, which is shot as a b&w silent film, it’s the by turns merry and ominous orchestral pieces that set the tone. During Ben’s half, the lascivious electric guitar licks really bring out the rhythm and soul of a restless city.
Haynes, ever the rapt observer and adoring illustrator of every human instinct, is never patronizing in his treatment of what might be unfairly labelled children’s material. The young protagonists are drawn with the same level of care and nuance as any adult counterparts, their doubts and disappointments registering just as clearly, forcefully. How he describes that unique sense of childlike wonderment without downplaying or cheapening it, in particular, is a joy to experience.
For those looking for a repeat of the simmering, masterfully contained beauty that is CAROL, WONDERSTRUCK may not match those expectations. But we’re talking about very different challenges here and why would an artist like Haynes want to repeat himself anyway? As an imperfect but heartfelt and exquisitely rendered portrait of the world’s mysteries seen through wide, guileless eyes, the film can proudly stand next to VELVET GOLDMINE and FAR FROM HEAVEN in the oeuvre of an endlessly, passionately curious auteur.