Wildly ambitious—and at times more admirable than enjoyable—Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, which premiered in competition today at Cannes, is certainly catnip for voracious film buffs. Adapted from Brian Selznick’s widely acclaimed children’s novel, Haynes’s movie is not merely the attempt of an often-edgy filmmaker to embrace the mainstream; it’s clearly intended as a career summing up and a mash note to disparate 20th-century filmmaking traditions.
Closely adhering to Selznick’s ingenious narrative schema, Wonderstruck follows the seemingly separate, but eventually intertwined, journeys of two precocious, and most importantly deaf, preteens coming to terms with an often hostile world 50 years apart. We are first introduced to Ben (Oakes Fegley) in a sequence that takes place in 1977. Longing for a father he never knew, Ben’s cozy existence is shattered when his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams in a touching cameo) is killed in a car accident. After losing his hearing in a freak lightning accident, and armed with only the scanty clue of a note scrawled on a scrap of paper from a Manhattan bookshop, Ben, like a foundling in a 19th-century novel, runs away to New York to discover his roots.
Ben’s saga is skillfully juxtaposed with a similar quest to discover an absent parent. Fifty years earlier in 1927, the lonely Rose (Millicent Simonds), deaf since birth, escapes from her sedate Hoboken home, where her autocratic father demands she learn signage but denies her affection. Infatuated with Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a celebrated star of the silent screen who turns out to be her mother (we see a clip of one of Mayhew’s films in which she resembles Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith’s favorite actress), Rose braves a ferry trip across the Hudson to see her idol, and reluctant parent, in a Broadway play.
These interdependent stories become fraught, and sometimes overburdened, with multiple layers of significance. Both Ben and Rose are obsessed with “cabinets of wonders”—collections of eccentric objects that, in the context of this movie, function as talismans of memory for alienated children striving to comprehend the mysteries of the past. The fact that Rose is coming to terms with the past in 1927, the year silent cinema was being eclipsed by the advent of the “talkies,” provides many opportunities for Haynes and Ed Lachman, his talented cinematographer, to deploy their knowledge of silent masters such as King Vidor and F.W. Murnau and regale the audience with a bravura pastiche of motifs lovingly pilfered from The Crowd (1928) and Sunrise (1927).
In a similar vein, Ben’s trek to Manhattan allows Haynes to pay homage to seminal ‘70s films like Taxi Driver (1976) and The French Connection (1971). Haynes takes the grittiness of New York in the ‘70s on as a challenge to faithfully replicate the seediness of a pre-gentrification era. Ben encounters a giant rat on the Upper West Side and Haynes seems to take particular delight in recreating the garbage-strewn Port Authority bus terminal where the Midwestern Ben is introduced to the city’s dubious charms. Simulating the ambiance of the intersecting decades on screen appears to have delighted Mark Friedberg, Haynes’s intrepid production designer.
Even though the connect-the-dots pattern imposed by this sprawling structure is occasionally as labored as it is unquestionably inventive, there is one brilliant sequence that displays Haynes’s creative powers at their peak. Taking refuge from the dangers of a city he is just becoming acquainted with, Ben peruses the rather spooky dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and receives almost divine assistance from Jamie (Jaden Michael), a boy around his own age whose dad works at the museum and performs the function of the archetypal “helper” figure found in fairy tales. Crystallizing the film’s preoccupation with both the natural world and a near-magical realm, this sequence is intercut with Rose’s own meanderings through the same museum in the ’20s as she evades the clutches of her menacing father and seeks out her kind brother Walter, who helps to save her from a hellish home life in Hoboken.
Known as a skillful “actors’ director,” as well as a consummate cinematic craftsman, Haynes elicits effective performances from both his youngest and least experienced, as well as his most seasoned, cast members. Millicent Simmonds, a young deaf actress making her debut, delivers an utterly guileless, touching performance as the young Rose. Oakes Fegley, known primarily for a role in Pete’s Dragon, possesses more of the tics endemic to kid actors and, although he’s ultimately winning as Ben, comes close to being annoyingly cloying. On the other hand, Julianne Moore (a Haynes favorite who was brilliant in both the director’s Safe and Far from Heaven), in the dual role of Lillian Mayhew and the adult Rose of the 1970s, is as convincing as a silent screen diva as she is as an aging, melancholy deaf woman.
As the title implies, Wonderstruck does its best to be awe-inspiring. So a critic risks seeming slightly misanthropic if he doesn’t embrace the movie’s self-consciously wondrous conclusion in which the apparently tenuous connections between Ben and Rose become clear and the implications of the Oscar Wilde aphorism that adorns Ben’s bedroom wall in Minnesota—“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”—is explained for our delectation. Without giving any plot details away, it should suffice to say the stories coalesce in a slightly gooey manner. It also is obvious that, in striving for universality and the heart-warming affirmation of early Spielberg films, the sexual frisson that fueled previous Haynes films is missing in action. With the full awareness that Wonderstruck may soon be venerated as a modern classic, I have to admit that, as much as I respect Haynes’s effort to outdo his own considerable achievements, it often comes off as a dutiful, overly schematic academic exercise.