by Hope Madden
If Wonderstruck—the latest from indie god Todd Haynes—feels a bit like Scorsese’s 2011 wonder Hugo, there’s a reason for that. Both films are based on juvenile fiction created by Brian Selznick.
Selznick, who adapts his own material here for the screen, is a one-of-a-kind author whose elaborate pencil drawings fill far more pages than actual text. The resulting novels offer near-magical journeys full of sumptuous detail supplied by visuals.
In both cases, the visual majesty of Selznick’s work jumps easily to the screen—in Hugo, to Oscar-winning results by cinematographer Robert Richardson. For Wonderstruck, Haynes works with longtime collaborator Edward Lachman.
But if Selznick’s unabashedly whimsical, sentimental material felt out of character for Scorsese, it’s no more characteristic for Haynes. His films tend to tackle ideas far more subversive, and by lighting those ideas with beauty and humanity, Haynes illustrates universal ideas, often of longing and the desire to belong.
His newest film also explores the human need to belong, although there’s very little to find subversive in Wonderstruck. It’s a family film that’s likely too slow moving for most youngsters and too lightweight for most Haynes fans.
The tale follows two deaf children, each on a similar journey 50 years apart. In 1927, a period lensed in black and white with a near-silent film feel about it, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) escapes her overbearing father to run away to a Broadway theater in search of her favorite starlet (Julianne Moore).
Ben (Oakes Fegley) follows a similar path in a far more garishly colorful 1977. Having recently lost both his mother and his hearing, the boy follows a clue about his father’s whereabouts to a bookstore in Queens.
Wonderstruck is a gorgeous movie. The Seventies period detail is as delightful and the Twenties elegance is lovely. All performances—particularly those of the two young leads—compel attention. Underlying themes of loneliness and the longing for acceptance resonate in the same way they echo through all of Haynes’s work.
Unfortunately, the narrative feels more full of contrivance and convenience than wonder. In the end you’re left thinking, wow, that was really pretty. Too bad it all collapsed on itself at the end.