“Wonderstruck,” the new film from Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Far From Heaven”) may be a children’s film made for adults, or an adults’ film made for children.
I’m guessing that it’s really meant for a certain kind of viewer regardless of age — but those that it’s made for, it’s really made for. Count me among them. “Wonderstruck” is a delightful, rapturous film whose love of cinema — of telling stories visually — spills out onto the screen in exciting and moving ways.
Adapted by Brian Selznick from his young adult novel (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the basis for Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”), “Wonderstruck” follows two children in two different time periods. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is in 1977 Minnesota, reeling from the death of his mother (Michelle Williams). He never knew his father, but a bookmark found in an old book about museums (titled, of course, “Wonderstruck”) provides a tantalizing clue involving a New York bookstore. After Ben is rendered deaf in a freak accident, he decides to head to New York by bus and look for his father.
In 1927 Hoboken, we meet Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a first-time actress who really is deaf), living under the thumb of an uncaring father (James Urbaniak). She runs away to New York as well, on a mission to find her favorite silent screen actress (Haynes' favorite Julianne Moore). Fegley is solid as the lonely Ben, but it’s the newcomer Simmonds who entrances on-screen, projecting the soulfulness of a silent screen icon.
Rose’s story is presented like a silent film, in lustrous black-and-white with no dialogue or sound effects, just Carter Burwell’s score. Ben’s story is in vibrant color, and we can hear the dialogue and sounds of the city even if Ben himself can’t. Cutting back and forth between the two children, Haynes finds ways for their journeys to rhyme both thematically and visually. As Ben is gazing up at the stars, for example, Haynes cuts to Rose gazing at movie stars in a magazine.
When their paths “converge” a half-century apart at the Museum of Natural History, their hands touching the same meteorite, the moment is electrifying, connecting them across the generations. We think of all the people who have come to New York from all over the world, from different ages, with the same dreams. It’s a cliché to say that New York City is a character in a movie — although, in this case, it’s two characters.
Haynes is brilliant at creating period films where every detail, whether emotional or visual, is just right. Here he creates two New Yorks, and each one feels absolutely authentic and transporting. I could have spent another hour just watching Ben as he jostles through the crowd in the dingy beauty of pre-gentrified 42nd Street, or strolling with the wide-eyed Rose as she drinks in every detail of pre-Black Friday Wall Street.
Eventually, Ben and Rose’s journeys intersect, in a finale that is positively magical in ways that it should be a felony to spoil. “Wonderstruck” can be a little slow at times along the way, especially for younger viewers conditioned to expect something to happen on-screen every second.
Instead, Haynes allows time for those children to stop and savor their worlds. And there is so much to savor here.